Isolation Read #45

(translated by Charlotte Collins)

This is a quiet book. And yet it contains an avalanche.

It is a deceptively simple, delightful read, full of clear-eyed truths.

The story of an Austrian orphan, moved to live with his uncle’s family on a farm in a small village, in a deep valley surrounded by soaring Alpine beauty. Andreas Egger grows to be a strong farmhand, invaluable to his uncle but nevertheless mistreated by him, regular beatings, deprived of food and love by all but the grandmother. He is taciturn, only interested in the things he can physically do that show his value: he carries, fetches, digs, plants, reaps almost inexhaustibly.

He helps with the work to build the first cable cars that will ferry passengers up the mountain side. He scales rock faces, drilling the holes and sinking the massive bolts that will anchor these things. One day his team is working amongst pine trees, when

…the tension in the world released itself with a sharp crack. A splinter the height of a man sprang from the trunk, ripping off the young lumberjack Gusti Grollerer’s right arm, which, as bad luck would have it, he had raised high above his head ready for the next blow of the axe. Grollerer collapsed to the ground and stared at him arm. It lay on the forest floor two metres away, still gripping the hatchet.

It is easy to see where comparisons with the sparse economy of Denis Johnson’s writing come from. Andreas falls in love…which he cannot articulate, but can demonstrate…and then his heart is broken.

Later he gets work cleaning the cables: that is hauling himself the length of the cables on a suspended pallet, high above the valley and the rocks, scouring the ice and rust of the cables and the mechanisms with sandpaper and wire brushes. This interlude gives rise to one the most beautiful paragraphs I can remember reading – it is long, so I will be selective:

One clear autumn day, when a roll of sandpaper slipped out of his hand and sprang down the slope like an impetuous young goat before eventually sailing out over a spur of rock and vanishing in the depths. Egger paused for the first time in years and contemplated his surroundings. The sun was low…Right beside him a lone sycamore burned yellow…A group of hikers was sitting beneath the canopy of a small calving shed. Egger could hear them talking and laughing amongst themselves…He thought of Marie’s voice and how much he liked to listen to it… he rolled slowly over to the next steel girder, climbed down, and went in search of the sandpaper.

He goes to war, when the time comes, and winds up alone and bemused on a distant outpost of the Nazi empire in the Caucasus mountains. He almost freezes to death before being captured and put to work in a prisoner camp. One of the abiding images from this period is that of the starved and then frozen bodies of all the animals lying at the roadside, in ditches, as the prisoners are transported across the land in cattle trucks. The cruelty and horror traumatising Andreas.

Eventually he finds his way home and picks up his life as farmhand / odd job man. His final unofficial role being that of a tour guide, taking walkers up and down the mountain trails he knows so well. Eventually tiring of their preening self-regard, he gives up even this work and retires to become the cave-dwelling hermit on the edge of town. Mirroring the opening of the story when a young Andreas tried to rescue the goatherd Horned Hannes, who he believed was dying in a snow storm.

Lyrical, gentle, quiet: a treasure of a book.

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