Robert Seethaler, The Tobacconist

A new historical novel watches the rise of Nazism through the eyes of Sigmund Freud and a boy from the country
Robert Seethaler, The Tobacconist
Robert Seethaler, The Tobacconist

Can you imagine getting dating advice from Freud? This is one of the conceits of Robert Seethaler’s The Tobacconist, recently published by Picador in a translation by Charlotte Collins. The novel is a coming-of-age story about Franz, a seventeen-year-old boy who leaves his rural town to become a tobacconist’s apprentice in Vienna in the 1930s. As the naïve young Franz is dazzled by the lights and stimulations of the modern city, Dr Freud appears as a customer in the small tobacco shop where he works. They strike up cigars and conversation, and speculate on love, life, and a rapidly-changing world.

Seethaler rose to prominence with A Whole Life (2014), a novel shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize. Praised by Margaret Atwood and Ian McEwan, the text explored the influence of modernity and the Second World War on traditional ways of life. Seethaler’s interest in this theme persists in The Tobacconist, where what begins as a whimsical tale shifts gear into a novel exploring the rise of fascism in Austria. The forces of history push Franz towards maturity, and he transitions from a wide-eyed witness to tragic commentator on antisemitism, political violence, and populist rhetoric.

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Franz Kafka

The Tobacconist is clearly indebted to the work of Franz Kafka, an astute writer on the traumatic effects of twentieth-century modernity. Seethaler’s protagonist, Franz, resembles the sixteen-year-old Karl Roßmann of Kafka’s The Man Who Disappeared (1927). In both cases, strong and influential parental figures determine the protagonist’s initial move to the big city. In Franz’s awkward and ecstatic fumbling with the opposite sex, we can trace similar scenes in novels like The Trial (1925) and The Castle (1926). When Franz repeatedly asks a doorman for admittance to an institution, we have a direct homage to Kafka’s parable of the man from the country in ‘Before the Law’.

As a work of popular historical fiction Seethaler’s novel is entertaining, but there are areas that are underdeveloped. The presence of Dr Freud and his daughter Anna, who make cameos throughout the narrative, are not entirely convincing. Considering Freud spent his life exploring the complexity of human emotional experience, some of the doctor’s comments strike a discordant note. While the novel’s 1930s setting allows for broad generalisations about women’s bodies and minds, there are times when Freud sounds as hopelessly naïve as Franz. Whether this is intended to be charming, I cannot tell.

Robert Seethaler. Photograph: Urban Zintel.
Robert Seethaler. Photograph: Urban Zintel.

The novel’s representation of Franz as the innocent boy from the country is also problematic. He and his mother (who remains at home in the small rural town of Salzkammergut), consciously reject the rise of Nazi ideology as it takes a firm hold on everyone else. Franz’s youthful ignorance affords him a kind of grace in the novel, where his lack of understanding of cultural or racial difference moulds him into a man who actively resists hatred and intolerance. Unfortunately, this somewhat nostalgic portrait is not consistent with historical record. Franz’s ignorance also renders him unaware of his complicity in the expansion of empires, colonial violence, and exploitation—after all, he caters tobacco, a luxury product from far and distant lands, to European connoisseurs.

Despite these reservations, The Tobacconist remains an intriguing novel defined by its own inner tensions and conflicts. Its themes resonate most strongly with the rise of right-wing extremism we can see in Europe and the United States in the twenty-first century. The novel is replete with uncanny echoes, repetitions, and resemblances. Like other historical fiction, the chief concerns of The Tobacconist do not lie in the past but with the most urgent and contemporary anxieties of our day.

The Tobacconist is published by Picador.

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