The Nameless Café
Translated from German (Austria) by Élisabeth Landes and Herbert Wolf
Sabine Wespieser, 246 p., €23
To a relative or friend who asks you why read Robert Seethaler’s new novel, an answer immediately comes to mind. This story combines with rare subtlety seriousness and lightness, melancholy and happiness. Each gliding between words and pages with fluid grace, limpid simplicity. It is from the sum of “little nothings” that emotion and nobility are born, the harmonious phrasing of the style – and the quality of the translation – instilling gripping music, like an impromptu by Schubert. The reader falls in love with it and never wants to leave the Café sans nom…
The story begins in Vienna, at the end of the summer of 1966. The scars of war are as striking as the desire to turn the page and approach with enthusiasm the shores of modernity and comfort. In a working-class neighborhood, not far from the Prater and its famous Ferris wheel, Robert Simon calmly makes a living doing odd jobs. Helpful and placid by nature, this thirty-year-old is appreciated by market traders, where he lends a helping hand, as well as his neighbors or his landlady, a war widow.
Without him explicitly expressing the wish, here he decides to take over an abandoned café. Through courage and tenacity, learning the trade on the job, with deep empathy if not demonstrative, Robert gets the place back on track, hires an equally attentive “second” named Mila, creates between room and terrace a place of conviviality, rest and forgetting. Time for a beer and a piece of lard toast duly accompanied by pickles.
Oscillating between the point of view of his gentle hero and that of his customers, Robert Seethaler paints the picture of a city tipping into a new world, some of which will make their honey while others will find themselves seized with dizziness or remain on the aisle. “The metro is going to be built, Saint-Étienne Cathedral is going to become a terminus, and the Good Lord is hiding his face by looking elsewhere (…) They say that the tram will soon run without a controller. Pure madness. On the other hand, the controllers are all unfriendly…”
Month after month, year after year, the Café without a name – out of modesty, its new owner did not want to give it his own – quietly prospers and could, like other Viennese high places, become an institution. But real estate speculation decides otherwise and Robert Simon will have to give up the keys. In homage to the pillars of his counter, to his friends in the neighborhood, to the ever faithful Mila, he organizes a “big farewell party”, the culmination of this banal and exceptional human adventure. Scented paper flowers and confetti, candles and drinks in quantity, music and special day outfits… the event sparkles to match the modest affection that the Café sans nom menu offered without saying it. “It was exactly as I imagined it,” Mila says. She had taken off her apron and let her gaze wander around the room. “They were all so beautiful. » Of a beauty that is unknown and only radiates more.