My rating: 4 stars
I have read a few books set around the time of the rise of Nazism in Europe and the Second World War in the latest years. Nevertheless, The Tobacconist by the Austrian author Robert Seethaler still managed to surprise me, because it mixes the growing of hatred in politics with a story about sexual awakening and the state of bewilderment caused by falling in love for the first time.
In the summer of 1937, Franz Huchel lived with his mother in the village of Nussdorf am Attersee. They could afford to live in a cottage near the lake, since she was in some sort of relationship with Alois Preininger, a rich man from that area, and every month he gave her a sum of money. But, when Preininger died, Franz was forced to accept to go work for a tobacconist, Otto Trsnyek, in Vienna.
At his establishment, Otto sold newspapers, stationery and tobacco products. He believed that the secret of a good tobacconist was to read all the newspapers every day, and to understand the aroma, the scent and the taste of cigars. The main problem of the cigar business, according to him, was politics. His assessment of the situation of that time could also be unfortunately applied to present day.
“(…) politics messed up, screwed up, fouled up and dumbed down absolutely everything, and basically ruined it one way or another.”
The consequences of the rise of Nazism were starting to be noticeable in the community. Someone wrote “Get out Jewlover” on the wall of the shop, and Otto was sure that it had been the butcher. He then criticised those who stood by while the Nazis were spreading hate and malice.
“My head still thinks for itself. I won’t dance at your party. I don’t pin a swastika under my lapel (…)”
Although there were those who refused to bend to cruelty and had the courage to make that clear, Nazism spread with ease, without much fuss being made about it. The majority of the population continued to live their lives without seeming to give much thought to the growing of oppression, racism and anti-Semitism. The way in which the political environment of that time only truly feels significant for the story when it leads to a change in the lives of the main characters serves almost as a warning that autocracies don’t advertise their arrival.
While working at the tobacconist’s shop, Franz met Sigmund Freud and became somewhat fascinated by him. He expressed interest in reading all of his books, but Freud advised him against it. Instead, he should look for a girl. Franz was not sure about that, seeing that he didn’t know anything about love nor understood it. Freud assured him that no one really did.
Despite his reservations, Franz decided to follow Freud’s advice. His first attempt didn’t end up well, though. He met a Bohemian girl and fell in love with her. But he didn’t ask her name and she disappeared without an explanation. Without knowing what to do, he went to Freud’s house seeking advice, and they forged a friendship. Franz was still really naïve and Freud appreciated that. It brought something new to his life. The conversations between Franz and Freud were almost always enthralling, and at times it felt like Freud was already expecting the darkness that lied ahead.
The ending got me really emotional, but I think the book could have been a bit longer. Sometimes it felt like some occurrences could have been further explored, and when I finally warmed to the characters the story was almost coming to an end. Nonetheless, I appreciated reading this bittersweet novel, which is full of inspiring remarks.