‘It’s a messy business, dying,’ he said. ‘As time goes on there’s just less and less of you. It happens quickly for some; for others it can drag on. Starting from birth you keep losing one thing after another: first a finger, then an arm, first a tooth, then a whole set of teeth, first one memory, then all your memory, and so on and so forth, until one day there’s nothing left. Then they chuck what’s left of you in a hole and shovel it in and that’s your lot.’
With Storm Ophelia raging outside and work cancelled, I picked this up late Sunday evening and promptly devoured its 149 pages in just a couple of hours.
I love simple, heartwarming books like this that tell the story of the common man. Andreas Egger’s tale could easily be the anyone’s story. In a very short space, Robert Seethaler takes us on a journey from early childhood to death and gives us much to think about.
A Whole Life begins in the summer of 1902 as a parentless Andreas is deposited on the farm of a distant relative. Here he grows up to be big and strong despite little care or love and many beatings at the end of a hazel rod. At the age of eighteen he sets out to make a living on his own but leaves the farm with a permanent limp due to a childhood injury.
Andreas buys a small patch of land, builds a home and eventually finds love despite his shy manner. He gains a reputation as a hard worker and eventually ends up working on the construction of cable car lines. Throughout his lifetime, he experiences two world wars, the moon landing and the introduction of cars and televisions. He also experiences and endures more than a fair share of hardship and loss.
But Andreas is a natural born survivor and continues to endure the world on a day-to-day basis. He never complains about or questions his lot when many others would sulk or lament. When the time comes for his life to end, he looks back on it as a series of memories all too faint in the distance to remember fully.
Of course, we can all relate to this mindset the older that we get ourselves. As time moves on our experiences become diluted by their sheer number. Robert Seethaler writes a simple yet tender story that perfectly captures this sentiment. Chronologically we are with Andreas from beginning to end, but despite the detail the best that any author can do is offer us the briefest of glimpses of a whole life. That is the beauty of the human experience.
- A Whole Life was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2016. Another previous read of mine, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, won the prize that year.
- Reading this book put me in mind of John William’s classic work Stoner. The many references to the beauty of the natural world and the changing seasons also reminded of a recent read, Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13.
- To get a copy of this beautiful little book for €6.35 (incl. delivery) click here.