In 'Der Trafikant', Austrian novelist Robert Seethaler merges fiction with history to create an immersive and dramatic coming of age story about love and courage in pre-war Vienna. The novel 'Der Trafikant', which was first published in 2012, quickly became a bestseller. It has been reprinted several times. 'Der Trafikant' has since been translated into English (The Tobacconist) and saw a film adaptation in 2018.
As Austria gradually loses its independence to the Nazi regime and society takes a drastic turn towards political extremism and antisemitism, Franz Huchel, the protagonist of 'Der Trafikant', leaves his idyllic hometown - Nussdorf am Attersee - in the Salzkammergut to move to Vienna. There, he trains as a tobacconist under the auspices of Otto Trsnjek, the owner of a tobacco and newspaper shop on Währingerstraße in the 9th district. Although pained by homesickness and a feeling of being lost in this big city, Franz Huchel is eager to learn his trade. Day in and out, he assists the elderly, war-invalid Otto Trsnjek, carefully reads newspapers and advises customers on cigars, pens and magazines. But Franz also came to Vienna to explore the world beyond Währingerstraße.
One day, his tours through the city take him to Praterstern, the famous Viennese amusement park, where he meets and falls in love with Anezka, a mysterious girl from Bohemia. Unfortunately, Franz quickly loses sight of her. Homesick and heartbroken, he turns to one of Otto Trsnjek’s most regular patrons for advice, Sigmund Freud, who lives just around the corner of Währingerstraße on Berggasse 19. Franz quickly realises, though, that love is as much a mystery to him as to the world-famous psychoanalyst. He, nevertheless, resolves to find Anezka again, searching for her throughout the city. But as if lovesickness was not enough, Franz is also confronted with an increasingly hostile society gearing up for the political tumult that is about to happen. Fostered by the critic and humanist Otto Trsnjek and confronted with Nazi sympathisers, Franz observes increasingly hostile attitudes towards Jews, socialists and others who do not fit neatly into the Nazi ideology. After witnessing attacks against those rejected by the Nazis, Otto Trsnjek and Franz Huchel bravely take their stance, risking everything.
In 'Der Trafikant', Robert Seethaler masterfully weaves the historical and political developments of 1937 and 1938 into the ordinary lives of the characters working in and frequenting Otto Trsnjek’s shop on Währingerstraße. Using poetic language and thoroughly researched political developments of pre-war Vienna, Seethaler immerses readers into the world of the little tobacco and newspaper shop that is about to be transformed by the years ahead.
Readers feel from the start of the book that this fragile world is about to undergo drastic changes, and so do the characters in 'Der Trafikant'. Seethaler carefully traces their lives, feelings, hopes and worries. Throughout the book, he shows how love and courage can motivate ordinary people to overcome themselves and make a difference, however small it may be. With 'Der Trafikant', he leaves us with a bittersweet taste of a 'Bildungsroman' and love story set in the dramatic, final days of pre-war Vienna.
Review by Katharina Wendl
This review was written for the ACF London's EXPLORE OUR LIBRARY initiative.