‘It’s pretty odd, actually, he thought. The way the newspapers trumpet all their truths in big fat letters only to write them small again in the next edition, or contradict them. The morning edition’s truth is practically the evening edition’s lie; though as far as memory’s concerned it doesn’t really make much difference. Because it’s not usually the truth that people remember; it’s just whatever’s yelled loudly enough or printed big enough. And, eventually, thought Franz, when one of these rustlings of memory has lasted long enough, it becomes history.’

Wow. If ever there was a quote to sum up the post-truth fake news world that we live in today, this is it. Scarily enough, there are many more elements of Robert Seethaler’s novel The Tobacconist that are uncomfortably relevant to the modern age.

This was one of the last books that I read in 2017 and it was too good not to review. I was very taken with this author’s writing style after reading Seethaler’s A Whole Life a few weeks previously. He writes his story in such an easy and free flowing manner that one cannot but enjoy the experience.

The Tobacconist is set in Austria around the outbreak of World War Two. The story is told through the eyes of Franz, a clueless country bumpkin who leaves his mother to work in Vienna. Here, he finds work as a tobacconist’s apprentice and tries to settle into city life.

Poor Franz cannot understand the mannerisms and politics of his newfound surroundings. The more he tries to, the more confused he gets and the more trouble he finds. Throw in some major heartbreak and our protagonist soon finds himself swiftly on the way to becoming a broken man. Enter famed psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, who just so happens to be a nearby neighbour and is a customer of the tobacconist.

Image result for the tobacconist by robert seethaler
Professor Freud makes several appearances in the book and becomes a close friend to the hapless Franz.

Through conversations with the tobacconist and Professor Freud, as well as letters home to his beloved mother, we get a real glimpse of what life was like for the ordinary man in 1930’s Austria. Franz has no political agenda nor hatred towards his fellow man so he offers us a refreshing and heartfelt view of a turbulent time in Austrian history. He do so while also trying to navigate the triumphs and trials of his own personal life. As the reader delves into this novel, it is impossible not to fear and feel for Franz as the wave of Nazism slowly approaches from the distance.

He literally has no idea of what the future holds for him and those around him. This makes his future a much more ominous prospect. Upon reflection, the reader comes to realise that life in 2018 is much the same in that we too are stumbling through turbulent times never sure of what the future holds. It is this sentiment alone that makes The Tobacconist a read worth considering the next time you wish to read something small yet significant.

Image result for the tobacconist by robert seethaler

‘He had almost entirely stopped reading the newspapers; in any case, they were nearly all filled with the same, constantly recurring content. If you’d read the Wienerwald-Bate you also knew what was in the Bauernbundler, has finished the Reichspost,, didn’t need to bother with the Volksblatt, and so on. It was as if, every day, the editorial departments gathered for one great big conference in order to maintain at least apparent objectivity by co-ordinating their headlines and incorporating a few differences in the texts of articles that were otherwise wholly identical.’

Question

  • Does anyone have any idea what this style of protagonist is called? It seems quite common. Other examples that spring to mind include Graeme Simsion’s Rosie Project series and the work of Patrick deWitt.