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Tarabas: A Guest on Earth

1 rating: 5.0
A book by Joseph Roth

An outsize figure in the mode of folklore, protagonist Nicholas Tarabas fills the entire narrative space of this novel, first published in 1934, one of a large legacy of works left on the author's death in 1939, at the age of 45, while in exile from … see full wiki

Tags: Books, Fiction, Russian Fiction
Author: Joseph Roth
Genre: Fiction
Publisher: Overlook TP
1 review about Tarabas: A Guest on Earth

Another Holy Sinner

  • Apr 15, 2009
  • by
Nicholas Tarabas... the monk Hildebrandt, Siddhartha, Parzifal, Goethe's particular Faust, and a host of lesser examples would make one suspect that Germans and German writers have always been obsessed with the Mitteleuropean "Three Rs": Repentance, Renunciation, and Redemption. Of course, book-worthy repentance has to be prefaced by vivid sins; Tarabas's sins are chiefly of violence - beginning with a simple fist fight but crescendoing to a horrific pogrom - and drunkenness. His renunciation, however, is total, an excruciating commitment to suffering and squalor described in achingly credible detail. And his redemption is ambiguously impersonal, posthumous, useless to anyone except as an icon. Truly, everything about Tarabas - the character and the book - is iconic and archetypal; one might almost suspect that Joseph Roth had been studying Karl Jung.

Tarabas is a young Russian of good and wealthy family, a university student who is expelled for semi-serious anti-Tsarist activity. He spends some aimless years in America, then returns to Russa at the beginning of World War 1 to become a ruthlessly effective 'front' officer, a veritable devil of a fighter. The Russian Revolution complicates his story, deprives him of his self-satisfaction as a fighter. He becomes an officer without a war in a fragment country which may be Belarus. Eventually, bad gets worse, he presides over a pogrom without being sober enough to grasp the situation, he commits an act of violence against a harmless Jewish idiot that somehow awakens him to his own degradation.

Joseph Roth wasn't in fact German. He was a Jew from the eastern fringe of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His descriptions of Tarabas's anti-semitism, and the anti-semitism of Tarabas's world, must have been monstrously painful to write. But Tarabas is a Christian of sorts, and Roth frames his story of 'redemption' in essentially Christian mystical terms.

There's a huge ambivalence in this tale; the author wears a three-cornered hat of Judaism, folklorish mysticism, and outright skepticism. I reckon that it's the intellectual tension of Roth's ambiguity that makes this book worth reading... that, and the stunningly beautiful prose, sentence after sentence. Ordinarily, this is a genre of fiction that doesn't compel my interest, but how could I not be compelled by writing like this:
"In the out-house where the miracle had occurred two candles had now been lighted. They were stuck upon a log of wood and lit the Virgin's face with their uncertain flame.... The candles, continually renewed -- no one could tell were they came from; it was as though every peasant had brought candles with him to Koropta -- shed shadow rather than light. A solemn darkness reigned within the room, a darkness of which the candles were the shining core...." Into this luminous darkness, in a few moments of prose, the Jews of Koropta will be dragged pathetically and forced to worship a painting of the Mother of Jesus while being spit upon, kicked, defiled, vilified... after which they will be herded back to their ghetto to be beaten to death or incinerated in the fires that will destroy their homes.

Does Roth's writing remind anyone else of Bela Bartok's music? If you don't know Bartok, the comparison will be useless, but if you do, it may be telling: the amplification of a folksong/folk tale, the simplest of material, by means of sophisticated harmonies and resonances; the harsh passion; the relentless impetus. In these ways, "Tarabas" very much resembles Roth's "Job", a novel that blends 'shetl' humor and Biblical desolation, and both novels remind me a lot of Bartok's opera "Bluebeard". On the other hand, Roth's greatest novel, The Radetsky March, is constructed on a totally different pattern, without any of the Bartokian romanticism, a large-canvas historical novel rationally analyzing the collapse of the multi-ethnic Hapsburg order. Roth was, in my opinion, one of the very finest fictionalists of the 20th Century, whose work is just now coming to the attention of English-speaking readers.

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