At only 149 pages, A Whole Life can hardly be classified as a novel. It is, however, a somewhat disturbing work covering as it does the entire life of its main character Andreas Egger.
Set in the Austrian Alps, the novel spans Egger’s life from when as an orphaned child he is housed by his uncle, who beats him so regularly and so severely that Egger is permanently crippled, to his death as an old man. Apart from years in a Russian Prisoner of War camp during and after the Second World War, Egger spends his whole life in one village, first selling his strength and labour to any who will hire him and then spending much of his life as an employee of the cable car company. For a brief time, Egger is married, but he is widowed when an avalanche sweeps his cottage away, kills his pregnant wife, and leaves him so further crippled he is unable to work on the cable cars. However, the building of the cable car has ended the village’s isolation, and a thriving tourism industry develops allowing Egger to become a mountain guide until he feels too old to continue: “On the mountain his foothold was still firm, and not even the strong autumn downwinds could make him lose his balance, but he stood like a tree that was already rotten inside” (131).
So what is it about this little work that draws the reader in? The diction is not particularly exciting, and while it is always a little difficult to know for sure when dealing with a translation, I feel it safe to say, given that good translations capture the tone of the original, that the somewhat flat, simple sentenced prose captures a sense of not exactly dreariness but of endurance. Moreover, Seethaler’s third person narration does not venture very far into Andreas Egger’s own consciousness even though his life appears to have been, narrow, defined by injury, and by loss.
However, in his stoic endurance, he survives. He accepts. He accepts the mystery of life—“he had barely understood Marie, [his wife] and all other women were far more of a mystery to him” (116)—and its brutalities: “The corpses in the Russian ice were the most dreadful thing he had seen in his life” (130), but he values life.
The novel begins with Egger’s attempt to save the life of dying Johannes Kalishka, known as Horned Hannes. He fails but only because Horned Hannes flees back up the mountain into the snow. His body does not appear for many more years being discovered only decades later when Egger is himself an old man. This beginning of the novel in medias res suggests that Seethaler wants us to consider the conventions of epic. The novel begins with a death and ends with Egger’s own death. Egger remembers that “Horned Hannes . . . seemed strangely happy. In his final hour he had laughed up at Heaven” (130) even though as Egger had struggled to get the dying goatherd down the mountain Hannes had told him, “The cold lady comes and goes. That’s all. She seizes you as she passes and takes you with her and sticks you in some hole” (5).
The novel begins, then, by asserting that all we have to look forward to is the end of life and oblivion, but it spends the rest of the novel showing how even the ordinary life, no matter how deprived, is heroic, how even the most humble person can survive both change and personal loss with dignity. Therefore, to answer the question I asked earlier about what is it that draws the reader into this novel, I would say it’s the fact that we cannot avoid comparing ourselves with Egger. In doing so, we are forced to confront our own possible insignificance and the fear we might not be as strong as he is to withstand the wounds of changing times and fortunes.
In the interests of complete accuracy, I should note that the picture is not the Austrian Alps but the Canadian Rockies in Canmore, Alberta. It is more decades than I care to recall since I was in Austria.