Monday, 24 November 2014
Translated by - Michael Hofmann
"They were blind or halt. They limped. They had shattered spines. They were waiting to have limbs amputated, or had recently had them amputated. The War was in the dim and distant past." "They had made their own individual peace with the enemy. Now they were readying themselves for the next war: against pain, against artificial limbs, against crippled, against hunchbacks, against sleepless nights, and against the healthy and the hale."
Given that The Radetzky March is one of the best books I've read since I started this blog, I felt it was well past the time when I should read another Roth and GermanLitMonth seemed the perfect opportunity. The introduction to Rebellion is written by the masterful translator Michael Hofmann who informs us that this is the fifteenth and last of Roth's novels to be translated into English, a full sixty years after his death. He also suggests that the reader "might read the whole of that oeuvre", and although I have only read three so far (I read The Legend of the Holy Drinker a few decades back) I hope that I will get to read all fifteen.
Rebellion tells the story of Andreas Pum, who "had lost a leg and been given a medal." He is a man of faith, faith in the government: "The government is something that overlies man like the sky overlies the earth." At the beginning of the novel he is in "The 24th Military Hospital", "a cluster of shacks." He is isolated within the hospital, thinking that all who oppose and complain about the government are "heathens." "The word satisfied him; it answered his swirling questions and solved many riddles. It absolved him of the necessity of continuing to reflect and to think about others." There is the first hint here that Andreas' faith may not be all it seems to be. Is it just a way to avoid thinking about the injustice of his life? Then we see him overtaking his comrades on the way to lunch. Why should he help them, or feel sorry for them? After all "He wasn't quite convinced by their pain."
There is one person he respects, an engineer, for although he speaks "like a heathen" he also speaks "like a priest." He intends leaving the continent when the borders open, saying "There's nothing left for me in Europe" and, of the war, "Everyone will lose it."
Andreas is waiting for an artificial leg. A captain has one and it is hard to tell that he has a missing limb. However his belief in the state is to be further tested. The second chapter begins: "The artificial limb never came. In its place there came unrest, upheaval and revolution."
Before being discharged from the hospital the invalids have to go before a medical commission. Here their future will be partly decided. Will they get to stay in the hospital, or will they get a nice concession somewhere, or a park attendant job... The rumour goes round that those with shellshock get favourable treatment and Andreas, after paying a visit to the only patient with shellshock, finds that he may have some of the symptoms : "Suddenly he felt his muscles spasm, his mouth skew, his right eyelid begin to twitch. He felt a joyful pain." At the examination the symptoms come over Andreas again and, categorised as a shellshock case, he is awarded a licence to play the barrel organ.
(At this point I can't resist the opportunity to insert Agnes Bernelle's song about a murderous Barrel Organist and his similarly bloodthirsty wife. Her style owes much to Weimar cabaret)
This is not a ticket to riches but Andreas is proud of his permit:"Our permit puts us on a similar footing to the authorities. The government allows us to play wherever and whenever we please." He also comes to love his barrel organ: "For the yearnings, the apprehensiveness, and the sorrows of his spirit fed the hand that cranked the handle, and he thought he had the ability to play louder and softer, more feelingly or more militantly, according to his mood and his feelings. He came to love his instrument, and held a dialogue with it that only he could understand. Andreas Pum was a true musician."
Andreas is almost a barrel organ himself, a mechanical man, played by the tunes that he has been programmed with. But the man underneath starts to emerge. He yearns for a woman, dreaming of "the cruel tenderness of some still unspecified female hand that he might one day call his own." Until then, he has a bed in a room with Klara and Willi. Willi, who mostly lives off the odd stolen sausage and Klara's earnings as a stand-in cashier and her "nocturnal profession", refuses to let Andreas in to the room during the day and so he "had a billet, but nowhere to live." A shell of a man with a shell of a life, things look bleak for our hero when he fortuitously meets a widow who asks him to play "something melancholy" for her husband Gustav who "passed away yesterday".
The widow isn't the hesitant sort and she is in the market for a replacement: "My name is Blumich, my maiden name was Menz. Come and see me again after the funeral." Despite competition from a younger, full-bodied rival who works as a constable Frau Blumich chooses Andreas as she wants to be in control and she doesn't trust the younger man.
Suddenly life is looking up and Andreas has a home, a step-daughter and a donkey to pull his barrel-organ on a cart. It is as he deserves, for is he not "Devout, mild, law abiding, and dwelling in complete harmony with divine and human laws"? "What a difference between him and, say, Willi. Between him and all those others, those hordes who played and sang in courtyards without any authorisation! Terrified at the echoing footfall of policemen, always vulnerable to denunciation from a malicious neighbour, frittering away their meagre earnings at the bar, pimps and crooks that they were!"
But, and this will not come as a surprise, the world doesn't work so simply and so fairly. After the surprising upsurge in Andreas' fortunes he starts to feel a sense of entitlement and that is his downfall. An altercation with a businessman escalates and Andreas is arrested and he becomes grist to the slowly, blindly turning wheels of the justice system. His faith in government is tried and Frau Blumich's faith in his reliability is shattered. Its all downhill from that point and the reversal of fortune is mirrored by Willi, who becomes a businessman himself, placing attendants in the toilets of all the cafés in the town, and raking in the money from these concessions. He too is partly a war hero, as he takes on the name of a dead soldier to hide his criminal past.
Rebellion is a brilliant novel. Roth must rate as one of the greatest novelists of the twentieth century. And the translation by Michael Hoffman reads like the work of a great prose stylist, concise, precise and perfectly balanced. The book reminds me of a great unmade Chaplin film. Indeed, Chaplin, as a child, used to search out men with barrel organs, and dance along. Not much of a career, but it lead to greater things. For Andreas, it was more of a cul-de-sac.
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