imageWinner of the 2015 Grimmelshausen Prize

Translated from German by Charlotte Collins

Atop the mountain depicted on the dust jacket sits a modest wooden hut.  This is the hand-built home of Andreas Egger, a man whose spends most of his life eking out an existence in the mountain valley.

His life is hard.  He is brought up by his uncle,  treated more as a farm hand than a family member, and beaten so cruelly that he is left with a permanent injury.  When the worm turns, as it always does, he must fend for himself. With no clear ambitions, he manages to do this, hiring himself out as a farmhand, as a labourer building cable cars.  The high point of his life is lived with his wife in the aforementioned hut.  Yet this happiness is short-lived.  The mountain proves to be an even harsher master than his uncle ….

The great avalanche of 1935 causes Andreas to move away from the valley to build more cable cars and eventually to go to war.  Following years as a Soviet POW, he returns to a different world. Life is now dictated by the demands of the tourist industry.  For years, he struggles to come to terms with this until a serendipitous event leads to the mountain paying back some slight compensation for the losses sustained decades before.

For the most part Andreas’s is a solitary existence – imposed at times, chosen at others. He doesn’t even turn to the television for  company – watching it only on two recorded occasions. As he grows old in poverty, increasingly unkempt, increasingly intolerant of other humans and their chatter, he becomes the mad old man of the village.  He is aware of how others see him but is indifferent.  He faces death with the same stoicism he has displayed throughout his life.

He couldn’t remember where he had come from and ultimately he didn’t know where he would go.  But he could look back without regret on the time inbetween, his life, with a full-throated laugh and utter amazement.

That’s not how I react to his life.  In fact, in many places I found tragedy and I often felt profound melancholy.  I said before that he had no clear ambitions.  Actually that’s not entirely accurate – there is one, heartbreaking in its modesty and execution.  I won’t reveal so as not to diminish the poignacy of its effect when you read for yourself. But does my reaction to Andreas’s life reveal my own lack of wisdom more than anything else?  And is the underlying message of Seethaler’s piece that unreasonable expectation is the source of our contemporary ills?

Even though I’ve not mentioned it, landscape plays as important a role as the main character. The 3rd person narrative is both visual and fluid. There’s not much dialogue, but then the main character isn’t very talkative.   Nevertheless this is a slim, easily read and thought-provoking read, which strikes me as a perfect companion to Christa Wolf’s August.