Review of The Tobacconist
The delightful front cover of this book is what first attracted me. The white-washed buildings and the terracotta rooftops of a hillside town reminded me of a wonderful visit to atmospheric Prague.
Robert Seethaler's, The Tobacconist, is a coming of age story about seventeen year old Franz Huchel. It's 1937 when the story begins in pre-war Austria. Franz leaves his mother on the calm shored of the Attersee for an apprenticeship with a Viennese tobacconist. People are wearing swastikas on their clothing and there are Nazis on the Ringstrasse. However, Franz soon settles into a monotonous routine with the one-legged tobacconist, Otto Trsnyek. Before long, he falls in love with a Bohemian showgirl called Anezka, whose erratic behaviour leaves him both excited and exhausted. Who better to befriend than an ageing professor who's a regular customer to the shop – Sigmund Freud. As fanciful as this sounds, Robert Seethaler creates an engaging and credible friendship between the two and as a reader, I quickly accepted this incongruous camaraderie.
Suffering from homesickness and heartache, and in exchange for a couple of good cigars, Franz received regular, informal therapy sessions from the father of psychoanalysis, even as the Anschluss* is declared and war looms.
If I were to highlight something that didn't ring true, it wold be that Franz appears to be strangely unaware of what's happening to the Jews under Nazi rule, or at least oddly detached from it. He is made to read the newspapers every day from cover to cover as part of his apprenticeship, so I imagine he would have been up to date with all wartime developments.
Something happens (not giving it away) and Franz runs the tobacconist for a while by himself. Eventually he perpetrate an act of rebellion against the state, which seems more personal than political. He seems motivated by a sense of injustice and the circumstances of one particular event, rather than by disgust at the brutal system that caused it.
In my opinion, if you're looking for an enjoyable, atmospheric book or a deeper understanding of the early years of the 20th century, The Tobacconist is a great read. I became immersed in the story and could imagine the town, shops and streets. Very enjoyable.
* The joining of Austria with Nazi Germany.