Robert Seethaler comes from Vienna and has lived in Berlin since 1998. He has written five novels, most recently "Der Trafikant" and the brand new "Ein ganzes Leben". I’m very impressed by "Der Trafikant" – set in 1937 Vienna with Sigmund Freud in a supporting role – and a huge fan of "Ein ganzes Leben", which is a man’s entire life story in 160 pages.
Coffee and cake
What did we talk about?
I’m quite excited that Robert Seethaler has agreed to meet me even though he doesn’t know who on earth I am, and it’s hard to set a date so I eagerly agree when he says we should meet up on a Friday morning. I’m not sure whether he didn’t get the point at all or he’s just tactfully taken charge of the situation. Maybe he doesn’t drink. But we meet bright and early at Südstern station, I get a firm handshake and a blue-eyed flash and we go for a walk in the park. He wants to show me the animals. Yes, why not?
I don’t know my way around the area, or indeed the park, and I suspect I might come across as a tiny bit ditzy. But I establish my Berlin credentials when we work out I’ve been here longer than he has. Beforehand, Robert claimed he was not very eloquent and would rather not talk much, or indeed at all. We could just watch passers-by, he suggested. I agreed, and perhaps that’s why we go to look at the animals. It’s certainly an excellent conversation-starter, and as it turns out Robert Seethaler is not only eloquent but also perfectly capable of talking. We start by talking about the surroundings: do I know what that building is? I’m a tiny bit taken aback by the fatherly tone, especially because I know full well it’s the Vatican embassy. But I forgive him instantly because he lowers his voice to a whisper to tell me that the pope slept there when he came to visit. As if he had superhuman ears that could hear us talking about him.
Between the embassy and the animals, Robert says something so eloquent that it stops me in my tracks. He loves the idea of London, he says, because he went there a few times as a teenager, on language courses and the like. But it’s not so much the place he wants to go back to – which has gone now – it’s his youth. Not Fernweh but Jugendweh. Really, this is the most reflected thing a complete stranger has ever said to me at 10 o’clock on a Friday morning, and I can’t think of anything to say because it’s so, so true. I tell him about all the people I know who yearn for the Berlin of the 90s, all the books coming out and all that nostalgia, and I think part of them just wants their young days back. Looking back at it now, I think: oh, Proust! But that doesn’t make it any less impressive a thought.
There are comical pigeons and chickens to bring us back down to earth, with feathery shoes. The cockerel has a fabulous footballer’s hairdo. Animals drive him crazy, says Robert, because he can’t possibly fathom what they’re thinking. I suspect they’re not thinking very much at all, but I don’t say so. The easiest solution to that problem, I say instead, is to anthropomorphize them, to put human thoughts into their minds, but that’s nonsense of course. Oh no, he doesn’t do that – and I approve. A little later, we come across two elderly men who are doing exactly that. Neither of us comments.
Then there are emus, pretty deer and Highland cattle – with the most enormous and terrifying horns – and "Do you know what these animals are called?" I don’t know the answer this time, and again I forgive him for verging on patronizing because he’s so utterly charming about it. They’re not llamas, they’re alpacas. There are goats, and he seems to know about goats, and he points out that they like to climb, and I ask if he feels very close to nature, because of all the mountains and nature in his new book. Well, he’s not a country boy but he’s Austrian. It’s a small country and the mountains are very important to the Austrians. He doesn’t romanticize the mountain life in the book – believe me, he doesn’t – it’s incredibly tough, but being in the mountains is an elemental experience. Have I ever…? Well, we don’t have any in England, but I once climbed a big hill in Ireland and I remember the moment very clearly. I suspect he finds it ridiculous that I climbed a big hill rather than a proper mountain, but what can you do? I’ve always been a city girl through and through.
We turn a corner and come upon a turkey. It’s a huge and ridiculous bird, with a long red neck and a crown of feathers on its backside to make up for its hideous front end. Robert says if it were a person – we’re not anthropomorphizing here, no – if it were a person, it would be a rich old lady wrapped up in furs on her way to the Opera Ball. I am distracted because the turkey has a floppy appendage of skin hanging from its beak. It looks like nothing other than a foreskin, and I apologize in advance for saying so at 10 o’clock on a Friday morning, and Robert takes a large step away from me. I blush. Then I decide he probably just wanted to get a better look. He’s incredibly tall, so maybe all his steps are large.