BY ROBERT SEETHALER
'The Tobacconist' is a beautifully paced coming of age story set in Vienna just as the second world war is looming. Written by Robert Seethaler, this German author's portrayal of human nature, set against a subtle backdrop of political turmoil, is both tender and powerful.
Aged 17, Franz is sent away from his rural upbringing in the Austrian lakes by his mother to work as an apprentice for an old friend, Otto Trsnyek, who runs a tobacconist shop in Vienna. Franz is a naïve, inexperienced and lonely young man. Through the shop, he meets Sigmund Freud with whom, despite their considerable age difference, he develops a touching relationship. In search of love, he falls under the spell of Anezka, a Bohemian girl. In the background, the Nazi movement is rising and ominous prejudices are emerging.
The conversations between Freud and Franz are wonderful to behold, so often resonating with our current times. This is particularly true when Franz asks Herr Professor what justification there is for his minor worries, with all the crazy events happening in the world. Freud replies "We could turn the question on its head: what justification is there for all these crazy world events, when you have your worries?"
When one day, Otto Trsynek is arrested by three men in grey suits under the guise of possessing and distributing pornographic material, Franz finds himself left in charge of the shop. As Franz becomes a man, so we begin to recognise the inevitability of his fate.
This novel is a continuous stream of consciousness. At times, it is unbearably sad, but there are also moments of joy and dark humour. Every moment of seriousness is offset with a beautiful aside, whether it be a trembling daddy long legs or a falling glowing geranium head, stopping the reader and its subjects in their tracks.
The Den was drawn in by Seethaler’s attention to detail, dry but never mocking sense of humour, sad yet at the same time uplifting portrayal of this innocent and thoughtful young’s man life during this important period of history.