Review: A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler

“One can be happy anywhere, really,” says Andreas Egger’s almost lover in Austrian author Robert Seethaler’s remarkable slim novel, “A Whole Life.” She was commenting on Egger’s one room shed nestled like a cave into the Austrian hillside. Besides a mattress, a table, a single handmade chair and a sooty black stove, Egger may has well have been living in the hillside itself.

It was not a remark made out of rudeness, but admiration: “He had no one, but he had all he needed, and that was enough.”

“A Whole Life” is the brief, beautiful story of one average man’s entire life: Andreas Egger, a man who most in the village thought of simply as an “old man who lived in a dugout, talked to himself, and crouched in a freezing cold mountain stream to wash every morning.”

But Egger, like all, had ideas, dreams, and with remarkable care and clarity, Seethaler sees us through each turn and bend of his life, from Egger’s Dickensian childhood at the turn of the century, where he was placed in the care of an abusive farmer and then in the merciful hands of the village bonesetter, to his dangerous work with the cable car industry, through his loves, his time at the service, and the jarring and exciting transformations he witnesses as his sleepy village gives way to electricity, to television, to progress.

“He had already been so long in the world: he had seen it change and seem to spin faster with every passing year, and he felt like a remnant from some long-buried time, a thorny weed still stretching up, for as long as it possibly could, toward the sun.”

Filled with lines as crisp and sharp as a cold mountain stream, Seethaler’s work both bears witness to man’s changing relationship with nature in the name of progress, and serves as a testament to the profoundness present in the small moments: a waitress brushing past; “the cool stone at his back and the first warm rays of sun on his face,” reminding us that a whole life of simplicity is enviable, remarkable, enough.