Posted on January 20, 2017
Two small lives
Today I am reviewing two short books. The first is Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life, a quiet, mid-century novel about a man living in an Austrian mountain village. The second, A Cup of Sake Beneath the Cherry Trees, is a collection of musings by a 14th-century Japanese monk. These are two small books that deal with vast, life-affirming themes.
2. A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler
Andreas Egger lives in a quiet village in an Austrian mountain valley in the mid-20th century. The story opens with Andreas carrying dying goatherd Horned Hannes down the mountain, until Hannes leaps off his stretcher and runs away to try and escape death. The book then goes on to tell the entire story of Andreas’ life, from his early years when he is adopted by the violent Kranzstocker, to his work as a young man building ski lifts, his marriage, his time in the Second World War, and his experiences of modernisation coming to the valley, all the way up to his death.
This is an understated book, and its gentle tone of voice reflects the quiet, contemplative nature of its main character. A Whole Life has the feel of a fairytale about it because of its natural, slightly mystical setting and for that opening, fable-like section with Horned Hannes. Seethaler is particularly good at nature similes; he often compares people to animals, and manmade things to natural things. Andreas’ story is often deeply sad and he can be quite a passive character, but he is also shrewd and I was left feeling that he loves and understands a way of life that is being lost. This is a deceptively simple novel with really wonderful depth.
3. A Cup of Sake Beneath the Cherry Trees by Kenkō
A Cup of Sake, written by medieval Japanese monk Kenkō between 1329 and 1331, is a collection of his passing thoughts, written down as a way to pass idle hours reflecting on life. He writes about love, politics, friendship and other universal human occupations, and many of his thoughts are still relevant today. The book is a mixture of Kenkō’s thoughts, quotes from works he has read, and anecdotes he has heard which seem to have a moral at their heart.
I particularly liked the humour of this book. Kenkō isn’t just making profound statements about deep human values; he also comments on things that annoy him, like tourists who get too excited about parades, men who get drunk and make fools of themselves, and men who are too pompous and bustle around filled with self-importance. The whole book is a fascinating glimpse into a totally different way of life, and yet so many aspects of it are strangely familiar. He bemoans procrastination, promotes minimalism and talks about the importance of having real conversations (whether like-minded or not). This really is a wonderfully thought-provoking read.
“A man needed to lift up his eyes and look as far as possible beyond his own small, limited patch of ground.” – A Whole Life
Have you read these books? I’d love to know your thoughts!