The Tobacconist

by Robert Seethaler

A short book, easy to read.  Not sure why or where I bought it, whether it was full price or not (it looks new) but I started reading this somewhat angry at myself for not getting hold of a copy in the original German.  I became even more annoyed as I read, since the translation is in places quite sloppy.  Though I don’t have the original in front of me, I feel I could have done a better job!

That said, the book grabbed my attention while I was reading it.  Like A Gentleman in Moscow, the basic story is of a decent person trying to lead a good life in troubled times.  In this case, the setting is Vienna in 1937-8 and the person is a young man freshly arrived in the city from his mother’s home in the Salzkammergut.  He is naïve and lonely, but the tobacconist for whom he works is an upright person, and Franz learns the job and begins to explore the city. He strikes up an unusual friendship with a customer, one Professor Sigmund Freud.

The book is about becoming an adult, learning about the world – in this case, sex and human nature, but also the natural world and the minutiae of the city environment – and doing the right thing.  Franz sees the behaviour of Nazis and sympathisers around him, but he doesn’t just look on.  In his own little ways, he acts.  And in his conversations with Freud, he shares his own insights with ‘the professor’ which seem to be entirely home-grown and natural.

I’m afraid that this story is a fantasy.  Franz is the innocent, pure person we would all wish to be, who behaves the right way even though he doesn’t particularly think about what the right thing is.  Nevertheless, it was an enjoyable read and a book that lingers, and makes  you think.