The holy grail of contentment

There’s a subtle turning point in Robert Seethaler’s new novel that’s easy to miss. It occurs when the protagonist Andreas Egger asks the general manager of Bitterman & Sons Construction Company for more money. There is agreement, and then the general manager says something Andreas at first doesn’t understand but remembers all his life.

“You can buy a man’s hours off him, you can steal his days from him, or you can rob him of his whole life, but no one can take away from any man so much as a single moment.”

This scene comes one-third of the way through the book, at a point in any story we would expect something gripping to happen, or to have already happened. Andreas, however, lives a routine, uninspiring life. Indeed, one might throw aside the book like a tasteless cake. But read A Whole Life without such expectation, and you’ll be richly rewarded.

A Whole LifeAndreas lives in the Austrian Alps, in an isolated mountain village, during the mid-20th century. He is the bastard son of a woman whose brother-in-law takes him in after her death. The uncle beats Andreas when he spills milk or stammers through a prayer, and he makes the young boy work relentlessly on the farm. But Andreas defiantly leaves the day after his 18th birthday, strong and resilient. Soon after, he goes to work for Bitterman & Sons, building aerial cable cars up the mountainside. He also buys a plot of rocky land on the mountain, builds a simple house, falls in love, marries and then loses his home and wife in a devastating winter avalanche. He continues to work long, demanding hours until World War II arrives, when he leaves to fight the Russians in the Caucasus. Eight years later, including time as a POW, Andreas returns home. Time moves forward and modernization arrives in the village, from TV and the Americans landing on the moon to a holiday resort. Our steady protagonist becomes a mountain guide for tourists.

Andreas is a strong, unassuming man with spare needs and a keen instinct finely honed by the rugged, beautiful and often harsh mountain environment that fills his soul. When tourists arrive, “dispersing like bright insects over the mountain,” Andreas senses their longing for something they cannot find, which presents a stark contrast to his unflappable peace. And then, as he ages, modern villagers whisper about the odd, old man who transports his supplies on a homemade sledge from the village to his mountain home, but Andreas doesn’t care about their opinions. Why should he?

“In his life he, too, like all people, had harboured ideas and dreams. Some he had fulfilled for himself; some had been granted to him. Many things had remained out of reach or barely had he reached them than they were torn from his hands again. But he was still here. And in the mornings after the first snowmelt, when he walked across the dew-soaked meadow outside his hut and lay down on one of the flat rocks scattered there, the cool stone at his back and the first warm rays of sun on his face, he felt that many things had not gone so badly after all.”

Throughout the story, it could appear that Andreas is a slave to the  construction company, or a victim in the war, or a lonely old soul to be pitied; however, those thoughts never came to mind as I read the novel. Seethaler gives us this memorable character and the message of his unfettered life in an effortless narrative that presents contentment as not pursued, rather as allowed despite any circumstance. And the secret, I believe, lies in that turning point, that comment by the general manager when he says,“…no one can take away from any man so much as a single moment.”

A Whole Life was among the finalists nominated for the prestigious International Dublin Literary Award 2017. It is also an international bestseller, translated by Charlotte Collins from German into English.