The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler
Seventeen-year-old Franz Huchel journeys to Vienna to apprentice at a tobacco shop. There he meets Sigmund Freud, a regular customer, and over time the two very different men form a singular friendship. When Franz falls desperately in love with the music-hall dancer Anezka, he seeks advice from the renowned psychoanalyst, who admits that the female sex is as big a mystery to him as it is to Franz.As political and social conditions in Austria dramatically worsen with the Nazis’ arrival in Vienna, Franz, Freud, and Anezka are swept into the maelstrom of events. Each has a big decision to make: to stay or to flee?
Franz Huchel is a seventeen year old mummy’s boy who moves from his quiet and lazy life in the Salzkammergut to Vienna, where he begins work as a tobacconist’s apprentice (arranged by mother, of course). The tobacconist himself, Otto Trsynek, is an utter defiant; having had one of his legs blown off in the First World War, he makes no secret of his political opinions, and as a result is branded a Jew-lover by his peers, and is persecuted terribly.
One of the tobacconist’s more notable Jewish customers is the Professor Sigmund Freud himself, who enjoys the Nene Freie Presse and twenty Virginias. Franz becomes fascinated with this intelligent yet vilified figure, and they develop a strange and gorgeous relationship through cigars and conversation. The words passed between them illustrate the changes in Vienna, and the slow loss of safety for its people. They are also testament to Franz’s transition from (quite frankly a quite irritating) mummy’s boy into a strong, wilful young man.
Beautifully, Franz falls in love with a Bohemian girl, and laments for pages and pages over this lost love. The contrast of this against the political backdrop was quite jarring, and seeing Franz realise this towards the end of the novel was a gorgeous thing to see.
Seethaler’s writing has an almost lyrical, melancholy feel to it. He describes the smallest details of Vienna, the most minute things captured by Franz’s senses, so that character, time, and place all come together to create a setting of pure wonder. All of this came through perfectly in the translation, and the result was captivating.
A very quiet and gentle commentary on the Nazi occupation, it shows the life of one boy, and how the Nazis affected it - however minutely in the grand scheme of the Holocaust. The finale is a grand punch of satisfaction peppered with a realisation of the futility of it all. A wonderfully poetic depiction of life during the Anschluss - I loved it.