Some stories are brief, others ramble. People fall in love. Fall out. A mother and child escape wartime slaughter. A man pinpoints the playground moment when his life began to go wrong. The endearing Muslim greengrocer and the town priest argue passionately about truth and imperfection, and end up shouting at each other about God: ‘May His Mercy drop also into your heart, said the priest, and give me two bunches of spring onions.’ On another day the same priest, in a delirium of exaltation, ignites a spectacular auto-da-fé.
Seethaler has fun with the married couples, letting them present very different takes on their relationships, but mostly the echoes are more subtle, with a fragment of one person's story occasionally cropping up as an aside in somebody else's. The overall effect is a multi-faceted portrait of an unremarkable town inhabited by flawed, mostly unremarkable people; yet those carefully crafted moments of catharsis, when they come, still hit you with all the force of a freight train.
From the mayor and priest to a gambler and bitter wife, a communal picture of small-town life emerges. In fact, it’s all too neatly constrained. The dead have only a few pages each and all conveniently concentrate on the same few episodes. Why too are all the talking corpses from pretty much the same 20th-century period? Did no one from previous centuries want to pipe up? You’ll either buy into this and find it affecting, or think it twee and sentimental.
There are echoes of Garrison Keillor’s whimsical Midwest settlement Lake Wobegon to Seethaler’s rural town. But there is a more jagged edge to the Austrian’s writing than that of his American counterpart. What might have been a collection of quirky vignettes is instead a moving study of how all lives boil down to a handful of choices, often made by others. This is a quietly profound novel made all the more beautiful by its brevity.