This German best-seller is one of those books you quite enjoy as you’re reading it—but then find, rather to your surprise, it continues to haunt you long after more showy books have faded from memory, says James Walton.

the tobacconist robert seethaler

In 1937, Franz Huchel, a 17-year-old from rural Austria, moves to Vienna to work in a tobacco shop.

By then, the city is already convulsed by the political upheavals that will lead to Austria’s union with Nazi Germany—and the shop’s owner is already under attack from local thugs for selling to Jews (including the cigar-loving Sigmund Freud, with whom Franz strikes up an unlikely but touching friendship). But once the union has happened, of course, much nastier thugs are running the entire country.

 

 

"A novel whose power is somehow both quiet and utterly crunching"

 

 

Through all this, The Tobacconist resolutely avoids sensationalism, staying as understated as its own title. For a while, indeed, Franz is more disturbed by his first experience of love than he is by the Nazis.

Nevertheless, by concentrating on the ultimately tragic impact of global history on one thoughtful, slightly strange adolescent, Seethaler ends up giving us a novel whose power is somehow both quiet and utterly crunching at the same time.

 

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