Title: The Tobacconist; Author: Robert Seethaler/Charlotte Collins (translator); Publisher: Picador/Pan Macmillan; Pages: 234; Price: Rs 399
Vienna, the city of melodious music, baroque art and architecture, intellectual ferment, and exuberant — and even decadent — entertainment, seems an easy place to fall in love. But some time may not be the best — especially 1937, when Adolf Hitler is itching to grab Austria. Then, even Sigmund Freud’s advice may not suffice.
In this sparkling, thought-provoking but ultimately dark story, Austrian Booker-nominated novelist Robert Seethaler artfully blends the coming-of-age, love and political genres to show how youthful aspirations and ideals may be powerless, but won’t abandon integrity.
Alongside there are some priceless depictions of the last remnants of Hapsburg-turned-bourgeois Vienna before the Anschluss dragged Austria into the maws of the Third Reich, how totalitarianism gains ground and affects individuals — and the role of a craven, conforming media in this.
To top it all, there is also that pre-eminent delver into the human mind — Freud himself, but in the twilight of his life.
Seventeen-year-old Franzl Huchel is forced to leave his Austrian countryside home to work in Vienna when a freak accident deprives his widowed mother of her benefactor. But, his stint in a tobacconist’s shop proves to be life-changing in more ways than he could have imagined.
Diligently working for its owner, a disabled World War I veteran, he however gets conscious of an emptiness in his life, beyond homesickness. Help of sort comes in the shape of an old man, who seems a regular and valued patron.
This, Franzl learns soon, is none other than Herr Professor Doctor Freud or “the idiot doctor” as he initially responds. But as his boss tells him that “he can do a lot more than fix rich idiots’ heads” like teaching people “how to live a decent life”, Franzl resolves to seek his help and gets a chance when he sees Freud has left his hat behind and runs after him to return it.
As he seizes the opportunity to tell him of his predicament, Freud is exasperated but still provides some advice. His suggestion — get a girlfriend — strikes a chord with Franzl and he resolves to act upon the advice immediately. Though he strikes gold on his very first attempt, during an excursion to an amazement park, it does not entirely go the way he desired as the Bohemian girl he finds and fetes abandons him and he now has to wrestle with heartbreak and loss.
He seeks Freud’s help again — “bribing” him with fine cigars. But as Franzl perseveres to find the girl and win her over, ominous times are coming and there soon will be matters more serious to contend with, even as he soon begins to amaze Freud himself with the insight he has developed and his moral courage.
Will he able to get his heart’s desire, and will it be worth it in a world changing rapidly for the worse? The answer takes us through turbulent times as Nazism spreads and conquers, with less than salubrious consequences for him and most other characters as the story winds its way towards its doleful but inevitable end.
Seethaler’s story is, however, set off by the evocative dialogue and depiction of time and place (rendered most magnificently by the translator), through small details of people and things, and Franzl’s reflections, doubts and mystification at the course of love or the rise of a divisive and violent political ideology.
And then there is the political subtext of how totalitarian ideologies and assaults on individuality and liberty gain traction as social harmony is forcibly disintegrated as shown by the range of reactions to the changing realities — where active resistance is overshadowed by passive acquiescence or passionate embrace.
Above all, there is the edifying presence of Dr Freud (and a cameo by his daughter and intellectual heir Anna) that shows how intellectuals can inspire individuals around them.
Harrowing but still uplifting, Seethaler’s book is an eloquent look into how even highly-civilised societies can descend into madness and how we can retain our sanity and self-respect with small but significant gestures of independence.
(Vikas Datta can be contacted at [email protected])