David Le Vay’s translation of this minor Roth novel tries very hard to make the book unlikeable but fails; Roth’s piercing analysis of inter-war European mores cuts through Le Vay’s fug. (I hasten to say too that every Roth novel is a major novel in my book; this one’s “minor” only insofar as its smaller and less ambitious than his masterpieces.)
Franz Tunda, of the Austrian aspiring classes, goes off to fight, is captured in 1916, spends his war a prisoner in Russia, escapes and hides out in the taiga, learns a year after the fact that the war has ended, and begins to make his way home. Trouble is, things have rather changed in the world. He finds himself swept up in the Russian revolutionary bureaucracy, then wanders like a ghost through the new European realities on offer in Austria, Germany, and France. Trenchant commentaries abound on any number of subjects, from the banality of the new induststrialists to the pretentiousness of the avant-garde. Here’s Tunda in Paris. He’s broke, and has asked the wealthy President of a cultural organization to help him out; here he reflects on his reluctant benefactor. I’ve tried to ameliorate the translation as best I can.
Tunda walked through the serene streets with a great emptiness in his heart, feeling like a released convict on his first walk to freedom. He knew that the President could not help him, even if he gave him the chance to eat and buy a suit, just as a convict isn’t freed when dismissed from prison, just as it doesn’t make an orphan happy to find a place in an orphanage. He was not at home in the world. Where did he belong? In the mass graves.
The blue light was burning on the grave of the Unknown Soldier. The garlands withered. A young Englishman stood there, a soft, gray hat in his hands. He had set out from the Café de la Paix to see the tomb. An old father thought of his son. Between him and the young Englishman was the grave. Deep below were the bones of the unknown soldier. The old man and the boy exchanged a glance above the grave. It was a tacit agreement between them. A pact not to mourn the dead soldier together, but together to forget him entirely.
Tunda had passed this monument several times already. There were always tourists with their traveling hats in the their hands, and nothing hurt him more than their salute. It was like those pious globetrotters, who if they come to a famous church during a service, kneel at the altar out of habit with their guidebooks in hand, so as not to seem impious. Their devotion is a blasphemy and a ransom for their conscience. The blue flame burned not to honor the dead soldiers, but to reassure the survivors. Nothing was more cruel than the blissfully ignorant devotion of a surviving father at the grave of his son, whom he had sacrificed without knowing it. Tunda sometimes felt as if he himself lay there in the ground, as if we all lay there, all those of use who set out from home and were killed and buried, or who came back but never came home. For it doesn’t really matter whether we’re buried or alive and well. We’re strangers in this world, we come from the realm of shadows.
Does that seem turgid to you? I think it’s awesome. It seems to me that what Sebald did for post WWII Europe, Roth did for Post WWI Europe. Namely, showed his readers how eager they were to forget the past, and how the past persists regardless.
One other note of interest here: I’m adding this novel’s narrator to my list of what I’m calling, for lack of a better term, “authors as distant first-person narrators.” The story here is actually told by one Joseph Roth, who claims to have met Tunda once. Yet Roth is nowhere to be found in the novel. It seems like I’m coming across a lot of this lately in novels I really like. Other examples are Bolaño’s Distant Star, all of Sebald, Pamuk’s Snow . . . I know there are others I’m forgetting at the moment. I think some Bernhard novels fit this description. What’s the effect/use of this techinque?