Andreas Egger lives a life bordering on the vegetative, both figuratively and literally: His dwelling is high above the valley, at the tree line; and his days are mostly passed in wordless labor.
Unlike Seethaler’s earlier heroes of marginalized life – each of whom had his own Grand Tour – the protagonist of A Whole Life almost never leaves the unnamed remote mountain village that is his home. The high alpine terrain that we follow with Egger on his many walks is a source of emotional stability in a long life full of trials. This sense of rootedness, expressed in a limpid, flawless prose, is mesmerizing.
Survival in harsh conditions is a constant underlying theme of Seethaler’s enveloping narrative. The cold wisdom derived from this is already legible in the opening scene, where the young Egger struggles in vain to carry the dying goatherd Horned Hannes down to the valley through a snowstorm. When Hannes runs off raving into the blizzard to meet his end, Egger is left behind with the cruel lessons of the Cold Lady, the personification of death, whose mercilessness and ubiquity paradoxically guarantee some kind of rudimentary existential meaning.
In A Whole Life, Seethaler draws on the essence of previous literary depictions of rural life in Austria: Franz Innerhofer’s diagnosis of peasant brutality, Peter Handke’s searing poetic vision, Thomas Bernhard’s subliminal humor, Josef Winkler’s dance of death, Marlen Haushofer’s autarky and even, to a degree, Gerhard Roth’s sense of history.
One could almost be fooled into thinking that this is a utopia of sorts: the tale of the outcast as saint, as exquisitely carved as one of those masterful wooden altarpieces typical for Austria, the divine beauty of life, with all its accompanying terrors.
Salt of the Earth
The surprisingly brief narration of the phases of Egger’s life shows this rough-hewn vitality at work. An illegitimate child in the early 1900s, his brutal upbringing seems predestined, duly meted out by the patriarchal mountain farmer Kranzstocker who adopted him. Physical abuse has left him with a limp, but also hardened him for a life of unstinting work, driven by his love for the waitress Marie.
But all this is shattered by a natural disaster; Egger narrowly escapes, but his life continues to be marked by an endless series of close encounters with death – including the Wehrmacht’s Russian campaign and a long spell as a prisoner of war in Siberia.
On returning home, the ageing Egger is dismayed by the speed of change. The tourism boom has brought him material security, his work as a mountain guide allowing him to live in his true element. But the rising numbers of careless amateurs – taking foolish risks – leave him increasingly vexed.
Over the course of the novel, Egger’s vitality gently ebbs away; his lonely and unspectacular death due to old age is like the wilting of a plant – no violence, only the gradual exhaustion of the life force. His life, lived in symbiosis with nature, is a stranger both to complaints and the comforts of group identity – his sole concession an occasional visit to the village tavern. Travel beyond his valley holds no appeal; his rightful place is among these mountains.
Every move is natural, every symbol organically drawn; the wisdom distilled from Egger’s life seems to be the wisdom of the mountains themselves. The sole source of tension is death, as the great injustice that first weaves through the story and then reveals itself as an avenging angel.
A Whole Life is a novel of compact beauty in an elegant translation by Charlotte Collins – winner of this year’s Helen and Kurt Wol Prize – that superbly recreates the warmth and rhythm of Seethaler’s original, a universe of simple, direct perception, fully told.