Genre: Historical Fiction, German Lit
Setting: Vienna, Austria 1937-1938
The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler (originally published in German as Der Trafikant) is a story about a young man named Franz Huchel, who travels from his idyllic homeland in the Salzkammergut in Austria to Vienna to go to work for a tobacconist. It is set shortly before the start of the Second World War and as the story unfolds we witness the increasing furor that accompanies the Nazi’s rise to power, alongside Franz’s coming of age. The latter entails him falling in love with a girl, having long conversations with renowned psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, and learning some hard truths about the cruel and often confusing aspects of human nature.
I’ll start by saying I wish I had read this when I was much younger. Although I am only 25, I am sure I would have found this story much more profound and interesting when I was 16 or 17, closer to Franz’s age. The book starts out promising. Its comedic undertones and description of character and setting give it a tonal quality similar to Wes Anderson’s films. Unfortunately, the young Franz is occasionally tiresome to read about. His obsession over his crush Anezka, and his classic male feeling of entitlement to her and her body are beyond irritating. He is a naive character and at times that naivety is endearing, but in this particular aspect, and in our current zeitgeist, its a tiresome trope to be confronted with. Having said that, Anezka seemed like a far more interesting and more real character. I probably would have been more attached to this story had the author taken attempts to develop her character more.
That isn’t to say the story doesn’t have value. There are plenty of novels set during this time period, but this book carves out a special niche for itself by painting the times through the eyes of a young protagonist who hasn’t yet decided where his allegiances lie, or who has even fully developed an understanding of the need to pick a side. As illustrated by the mistreatment and arrest of Franz’s employer, the few people who try to rise against the tide are crushed. By the time Professor Sigmund Freud is forced to leave his homeland as a very old man because he is Jewish and Vienna is no longer safe, Franz has become a man who knows, if not what he stands for, at least what he stands against. It is an interesting portrait of what it means to show bravery, honor, and steadfastness as a tiny force against a seemingly insurmountable one.