Robert Seethaler ‘A Whole Life’

This last weekend I accompanied Marie-Claude to the French National translators annual conference (ATLAS) in the historic town of Arles, and whilst there I spent a couple of hoursimage exploring the Actes Sud bookshop, a famous French Editor based in Arles who incidentally publishes both Mathieu Enard (the recent winner of the Prix Goncourt) as well as the French translations of Svetlana Alexievitch (the recent Nobel Prize winner). Amongst other hauls, Marie-Claude came away with the latest Asterix ‘Le Papyrus de César’ and I with ‘Une Vie Entière’ (A Whole Life)

The best adjective I can find to describe Robert Seethaler’s book ‘A Whole Life’ would be gentle. Andreas Egger born in the closing years of the 19th century lived his whole life (with the exception of the war years) in a single mountain valley, without complaining, his poor life in this village seems so hard that his capture and six year detention in Vorochilovgrad with many prisoners dying around him from hunger, illness or exhaustion does not seem so different from his normal way of life.

He is brought up by a brutal farmer who continually beats him using a willow branch imagecausing him permanent damage to his leg, until he rebels and leaves home at 18 to live in stables, outbuildings or huts surviving doing any work in the valley he could be payed for, he tragically knows love for a short period, lives through the slow opening up of the valley to tourism and to his eventual demise and death living in yet another hut in the mountains.

I read this book in one sitting about this way of life so different from today’s but so recent.

First published in German as Ein ganzes Leben by Carl Hanser Verlag in 2014
Translated into French by Élisabeth Landes and published by Sabine Wespieser in 2015
Translated into English by Charlotte Collins and published by Picador in 2015

Bernhard Schlink and Walter Popp ‘Self’s Punishment’

Having read some of Schlink’s later works such as ‘The Weekend’ for example, I wanted to try a back to the roots look at one of his earliest works, written in association with Walter Popp ‘Self’s Punishment for German Lit Month V. The title in itself misses out on the ambiguity of the German title ‘Selbs Justiz’.

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This book published in 1987 and set at about the same time was released as a TV film in 1991 in Germany as ‘Der Tod Kam Als Freund’. This is a crime novel about people and motives, not a procedural thriller.

The book begins as an early story on computer manipulation affecting the RCW (Rhine Chemical Works) for which the company president Korten calls in his brother in law Selb, a 68 year old detective, to investigate discretely. After discovering that this is an early case of outside intervention over phone lines, Selb writes his report and part 1 of the book ends.

Part two begins with the seemingly accidental death in a road accident of Mishkey, the man Selb had confronted and denounced to RCW in part 1 and the following investigation leads into the murky pasts of RCW and eventually Selbs and Korten.

The essence of this book is about how people can come through a criminal regime, in this case Nazi Germany, and react so differently. Selb was a court prosecutor during the war, a believer in the regime ‘At the end of the war I was no longer wanted. I’d been a convinced National Socialist, an active party member, and a tough prosecutor who’d also argued for, and won, the death penalty. There were some spectacular trials. I had faith in the cause and saw myself as a soldier on the legal front’. After the war when so many of his colleagues went back to their previous jobs after temporary suspension Self could not accept this ‘Around the time of the Monetary Reform they started to draft incriminated colleagues back in. I could have returned to the judiciary then, too. But I saw what the efforts to get reinstated, and the reinstatement itself, did to my colleagues. Instead of feeling guilt they only had a sense that they’d been done an injustice when they were expelled and that this reinstatement was a kind of reparation. That disgusted me.’ He then began a lifetime of coming to terms with his past until awoken by the events in his investigation he says ‘I had planned to live at peace with my past. Guilt, atonement, enthusiasm and blindness, pride and anger, morality and resignation –I’d brought it all together in an elaborate balance. The past had become abstract. Now reality had caught up with me and was threatening that balance.’

In contrast his brother in law, Korten, who is quoted in the book as saying ‘It’s not reprehensible to use people, it’s just tactless to let them notice’ became the head of the RCW (Rhine Chemical Works), determined to keep the lid on his previous criminal actions during the regime. As Korten replies when questioned about events ‘Actually I don’t have to comment on that. The years between nineteen thirty-three and nineteen forty-five are supposed to remain a blank –that’s the foundation on which our state is built.’

The book slowly builds up to a confrontation between these two characters and their beliefs.

This is a well written crime novel, as with ‘The Reader’ revisiting aspects of Nazi Germany, peoples actions and how the consequences play out in their lives following the war. There are two other books in the series, both translated into English, Self’s Murder and Self’s Deception, although I am not a great reader of series I will read these at a later date.

First published in German as ‘Selbs Justiz’ by Diogenes Verlag in 1987.
Translated into English by Rebecca Morrison and published by Random House in 2005.