One of my treasured discoveries this year was Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life. Originally published in German in 2014, and translated by Charlotte Collins, this is a short novel told with apparent artlessness, but from the very first page you know it’s about to rearrange your mental universe. It is a breathtaking, heartbreaking story that encapsulates a universe of change, loss, resilience — in about 24,000 words.
A Whole Life is, quite literally, the whole life of taciturn, hard-working Andreas Egger, from the day he comes to the mountain village as an orphan with a leather pouch of money around his neck, to his death many decades later. He is by turn a laborer, a soldier, a guide to the mountains, and through the course of his life modernity comes to his village in the form of electricity, machine guns, and tourists. He is crushed by forces of both nature and man that are beyond his control — a world war, an avalanche, an uncle who cripples him as a child.
Despite the devastating tragedies and hardship, Andreas Egger’s sensitivity to every whisper and rustle in the natural world and the depth of his love for his wife endows his life with a beauty and tenderness that make the novel profound and moving. In this it reminded me of a film by the Chinese director Zhang Yimou called The Road Home, which tells a similarly moving story of a village schoolteacher and the girl who falls in love with him. At the end of the film, there was not a dry eye in the auditorium although it was hard to explain why: all we had seen was the story of a man and woman falling in love, being separated for a while by the revolution, marrying, having children, growing old together. Eventually, as in life, one of them died. That is — on the face of it — is all that happens in the film.
The other book that swept me off my feet was Yasmin Khan’s The Raj at War, a scholarly history of the Second World War as it played out in India. When Armistice Days and Veteran Days come around annually, few in the West remember the millions of colonized people who suffered and sacrificed in a war they did not choose. I hardly knew anything about it myself. Yasmin Khan gives us a deeply knowledgeable account of a country in turmoil, where half the population was fighting to preserve the British Empire and the other half was fighting to be free of it.
Over 2.5 million Indians fought in the Second World War, in places as far away from home as the Mediterranean and North Africa. Landlocked peasants became seamen, farmers were forced away to disease-ridden jungles in conditions of slavery to carve roads from swamps and mountains. Military imperatives led to lands seized, village boats destroyed, people starving in a famine that killed millions. Yasmin Khan’s detailed and analytical account includes prisoners of war, politicians, generals, laborers, prostitutes, road gangs, industrialists, nationalists, nurses, airmen. She consults a mind-boggling array of sources, from letters home to government communiques, memoirs, news reports, and so on, and yet, uncharacteristically for an academic book, this is a compelling, accessible narrative. A related book I read and learned from was Raghu Karnad’s Farthest Field, in which he tells the story of the Second World War in India through the lives of three ancestors, one of them his maternal grandfather. Conceived on a smaller, more intimate scale, Karnad’s book provides a different yet gripping view of the same war.
My final discovery was the enchanting Plumdog, a graphic novel by Emma Chichester Clark. It sounds cutesy, the diary of a dog in words and pictures. It is anything but that. This book could only have been made by someone who knows and loves dogs enough to notice their every little foible. It is beautifully illustrated, funny and sweet, and guaranteed to make you happy. I only wish I could read it to my dogs.
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