Saturday, July 07, 2007

The March and the Marsh

It is no small irony that the great novel of the Austrian empire may be one written by a Jew—and at that not a sophisticated, Viennnese middle-class Jew, but a Galicianer, a Glitz, a bumpkin, almost as embarrassing to his urban cousins as he was an object of hostility to the Goyim. But Roth’s Radetzky March captures the atmosphere of the K.u.K better than any book I know. It’s one of those books that sneaks up on you; deceptively straightforward in presentation, it leaves behind a tang that stays and stays.

One of the most remarkable episodes in this whole remarkable enterprise is the part where Roth’s protagonist gets himself shipped off to what must have been Roth’s own natal turf—“not more than two miles,” Roth writes, “from the Russian frontier. … The district was akin to the home of Ukranian peasants, their melancholy concertinas and their unforgettable songs; it was the northern sister of Slovenia.” (120)

The people in this district were swamp-begotten. For evil swamps lay far and wide to either side of the highroad and over the whole face of the land. Swamps that spawned frogs and fever, deceptive grass, dreadful enticement to a dreadful death for the unsuspecting stranger. Many had perished in the swamps with no one hearing their cries for help. But all who had been born here were familiar with the malignity of the marshland, and they themselves were tinged with the same malignity. In spring and summer, the air was thick with the deep and endless croaking of frogs. Under the sky, equally jubilant larks rejoiced. It was an untiring dialogue between sky and marshland. (122)

But Roth addresses himself not just to the larks and frogs:

[A] third of the town’s ten thousand inhabitants were craftsmen of various kinds; another third lived in poverty off meager small holdings. The rest engaged in trade of a sort.

We call it ‘trade of a sort’ since neither the goods nor the business methods corresponded in any way to the notions which the so-called civilized world had formed of trade. In these parts the tradesmen made their living far more by hazard than by design, more by the unpredictable grace of God than by any commercial reckoning in advance. Every trader was ready at any moment to seize on whatever floating merchandise heaven might throw in his way, or even to invent his goods if God had provided him with none. The livelihood of these traders was indeed a mystery. They displayed no shopfronts, they had no names. They had no credit. But they possessed as keen, miraculous sharp instinct for any remote and hidden sources of profit. Though they lived on other people’s work, they created work for strangers. They were frugal. They lived as meanly as if they survived by the toil of their hands. And yet the toil was never theirs. Forever shifting, ever on the road, with glib tongue and clear, quick brains, they might have had possession of half the world if they had had any notion of the world. But they had none. They lived remote from it, wedged between East and West, cramped by day and night, themselves a species of living ghosts spawned by the night and haunted by the day. …

[They] dealt in wood. They dealt in coral for the peasant girls of nearby villages and for those other peasants over the border on Russian soil. They dealt in feathers for featherbeds, in tobacco, in horsehair, in bar silver, in jewelry, in China tea, in fruit from the south, in cattle and horses, poultry asnd eggs, fish and vegetables, jute and wood, butter and cheese, woodlands and fields. Italian marble, human hair from China for the making of wigs, raw-silk and finished-silk merchandise, Manchester cotton and Brussels lace, galoshes from Moscow, Viennese linen, lead from Bohemia. No cheap bit of goods or splendid merchandise thrown up by the earth in profusion was unknown to the tradesmen of this district. … Some of them traded in live human flesh. They shipped off deserters from the Russian army to America and peasant girls to Brazil and Argentina. They had shipping agents and business connections with foreign brothels. Yet, with it all, their gains were meager, and they had no inkling of the vast superfluity in which a man may live. (121-2)

--Joseph Roth, The Radetzky March (Tusk/Overlook ed. 1983)

The swampland of which Roth speaks would be, I suppose, the Pripet Marsh, the trackless void where Nazi tankers liked to chase down their victims (it may also be the homeland of the Indo-European language). The most noteworthy local monument would be, I suppose, this one.

Fn.: Here is the March.

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