Book Review: The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler

[2jslideshow id=”undefined”]The Tobacconist Review Photo Credit-Pan MacMillan- Nick Moloney

The Tobacconist is a story set in Vienna in 1937, during which the young protagonist tries to come to terms with tragedy, love, city life, and the Nazi regime.  


The Tobacconist is somewhat like Great Expectations, where a young man reluctantly leaves home in search of something better. The protagonist, 17-year-old Frans Huchel, leaves his home and mother to work with the old tobacconist in Vienna.


Frans watches the seismic societal changes of 1937 from the uncomfortable stool in the tobacconist’s shop. The young boy, who had never read a newspaper or smoked, now becomes a connoisseur of fine cigars and by the end of the book has an encyclopaedic knowledge of each paper and its political stance.


The book begins with Frans adjusting to life in the city. He quickly becomes entangled in a love affair with a Hungarian girl, Anzeka, while developing an odd friendship with the pessimistic psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud.


Much of the novel revolves around Frans trying to come to terms with his love for Anzeka, mixed in with feelings of homesickness. He writes to his mother regularly throughout the book, and these soliloquies show us the thoughts of young Frans and his changing relationship with his mother as he starts to become a man.


Mr Freud is a pillar of wisdom to Frans. He often seeks out the reluctant professor for advice.


“Even the best of us are dashed to pieces on the rocks of the Feminine,” Sigmund told Frans.  


The changing dynamic between Frans, his mother and Mr Freud makes for an interesting read, especially if you consider Freud’s genuine theories on mothers and their sons.


Seethaler captures the Nazi’s rise to power through events that directly affect Frans. The tragedies turn the good willed boy into a cynical man as he remarks on the biased reporting in the newspapers, and the treatment the Jewish tobacconist and Freud receive.


Nazism quickly sweeps up and takes over the lives of the characters. Decisions about whether to stay, leave, or to join the regime run through the minds of everyone. As Frans’ naivety is challenged by questions of mortality, love, tragedy and puberty, we see him turn into a person crippled with frustration which he cannot yet comprehend.   


Robert’s simple prose make this book a pleasure to read. While it is a lot like his previous novel, A Whole Life, Seethaler manages to capture a huge cultural and political shift in a small number of pages.
Robert was born in Vienna and lived there for most his young life. He had a visual impairment as a child and attended a school for visually impaired children. In an interview with the New York Times he said his visual impairment has made him an internalized person and this is what has helped him in his writing career.

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