The One That Got Away:
If you haven’t already read ‘The Radetzky March’ go away, do that now, then come back and thank me. Actually you should probably read ‘The Legend of the Holy Drinker’ while you’re at it, too. But then, then read this.
The first 1,000 words or so are available here, but that’s only an extract from the much longer piece, which is itself only an extract of a planned novel that Roth never finished before his death, and which is very much our loss.
The story, or what there is of it, describes life in a small town very much like the one where Roth grew up, on the borders of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the turn of the twentieth century – a town so criminal and insane that it feels like a cross between Franz Kafka and Gabriel Garcia Marquez
I don’t think anyone had papers where I came from. There was a law court, a prison, lawyers, tax offices—but there wasn’t anywhere where you had to identify yourself. What did it matter who you were arrested as, if they arrested you? If you paid taxes or not—whom did it drive to ruin, and who derived any benefit from it? The main thing was that the officials had to live. They lived off bribes. That’s why no one went to prison. That’s why no one paid taxes. That’s why no one had papers.
There’s the construction of a gigantic, unnecessary hotel, and some digging for buried treasure, and a money-making scheme involving the rope from a hanging, and scenes from the narrator’s childhood, all told in Roth’s ironic, laconic style, and it all doesn’t come together, at all, and it’s wonderful.
What it might have been, had Roth ever finished the book, I have no idea.
Somebody should write the rest of it. There’s an idea for you.
(In The Collected Stories of Joseph Roth, Granta, 2002)