We imagine a door. On that door two names are written: Tarabas by Joseph Roth. The door opens. A man walks out, he looks like a character from Dostoevsky. We hear him speak, and are sure that we have met him before; scurrying through the pages of The Idiot. This man’s mind is populated by pixies and dwarves; it is saturated with mystical signs and personal portents; it believes in fate; convinced that its owner is foredoomed to be both saint and murderer. The book is even set in Russia, at a time the country itself was suffering a mental breakdown.
Yet there is a crucial difference between Roth and his Russian compadre. In Tarabas, as in nearly all of Roth’s books, the hero (or more accurately: anti-hero) is situated within a community; Tarabas forming part of ensemble which, although described lightly, is caught with miraculous fullness. We therefore recognise this hero as a powerful and complete human being; he is not some moral imbecile or a mad tyrant but a mature product of all the influences that surround him. This man is human; albeit he is qualitatively different from any of his colleagues: more extreme, more aloof, more capable of cruelty and self-sacrifice than anyone else. But: Tarabas is no superman. Like all the other characters in this novel he submits to forces more powerful than himself. We watch how the world affects him. We see how peace and the rise of the new nationalisms quickly restrict his freedom; taking away not only his power but the honour and recklessness of his life as a frontline officer. When the war ends he, like all the other soldiers, is forced to bow down to the bureaucrats. The clerks are in charge now.