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Tarabas: A Guest on Earth Paperback – 25 Jan 2013


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Product details

  • Paperback: 290 pages
  • Publisher: Granta Books; New edition edition (25 Jan. 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1862075670
  • ISBN-13: 978-1862075672
  • Product Dimensions: 12.9 x 1.5 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 837,460 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Review

‘Written in his customarily fluid and insightful prose, offers a moralistic response to Nietzsche’s will to power’ -- The Times

About the Author

Joseph Roth (1894-1939) was the great elegist of the cosmopolitan, tolerant and doomed Central European culture that flourished in the dying days of the Austrian Empire. He wrote thirteen novels, including Job and The Radetzky March. Much of his work has been published in English by Granta Books.

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IN August of the year nineteen-hundred-and-fourteen there lived in New York a young man named Nicholas Tarabas. Read the first page
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Jennifer Cameron-Smith on 9 Jun. 2010
Format: Paperback
Tarabas tells the story of the restless life of Colonel Nikolaus Tarabas. Exiled to America by this father, for taking part in anti-Czarist activities, Tarabas becomes jealous over a woman and seriously injures a bar owner in a drunken rage. `The hearts of foolish, easily intoxicated people are impenetrable.'

A gypsy has predicted that Tarabas will be both a murderer and a saint. Thinking that the bar owner is dead, Tarabas uses the declaration of the Great War as an opportunity to flee America to join the Russian military. Here, as the Great War becomes the Revolution, Tarabas again commits an act of violence, this time against a Jewish man.

Again he flees. This time, as a beggar trying to atone for his sins, he eventually finds peace when the Jewish man forgives him.
While the main themes of the novel are crime and punishment, guilt and forgiveness, it is Tarabas's restlessness and inability to settle and to really belong anywhere that has stayed with me. Yes, Tarabas is guilty of inhumanity, but he is not alone. I find this novel thought-provoking, bleak and unsettling: I love it. I am tempted to reread Dostoevsky to seek out parallels with both `Crime and Punishment' and `The Idiot'. But the reread will have to wait. There are a number of Joseph Roth novels to read first.

`A new generation is growing up which knows nothing of the old story.'

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 4 reviews
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Another Holy Sinner 15 April 2009
By Giordano Bruno - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
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.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
`Here rests Colonel Nikolaus Tarabas: a guest on this earth.' 9 Jun. 2010
By Jennifer Cameron-Smith - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Tarabas tells the story of the restless life of Colonel Nikolaus Tarabas. Exiled to America by this father, for taking part in anti-Czarist activities, Tarabas becomes jealous over a woman and seriously injures a bar owner in a drunken rage. `The hearts of foolish, easily intoxicated people are impenetrable.'

A gypsy has predicted that Tarabas will be both a murderer and a saint. Thinking that the bar owner is dead, Tarabas uses the declaration of the Great War as an opportunity to flee America to join the Russian military. Here, as the Great War becomes the Revolution, Tarabas again commits an act of violence, this time against a Jewish man.

Again he flees. This time, as a beggar trying to atone for his sins, he eventually finds peace when the Jewish man forgives him.
While the main themes of the novel are crime and punishment, guilt and forgiveness, it is Tarabas's restlessness and inability to settle and to really belong anywhere that has stayed with me. Yes, Tarabas is guilty of inhumanity, but he is not alone. I find this novel thought-provoking, bleak and unsettling: I love it. I am tempted to reread Dostoevsky to seek out parallels with both `Crime and Punishment' and `The Idiot'. But the reread will have to wait. There are a number of Joseph Roth novels to read first.

`A new generation is growing up which knows nothing of the old story.'

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
"Sinner and Saint?" 28 Oct. 2010
By Friederike Knabe - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Tarabas, the antihero of Joseph Roth's short, intense novel, is, without doubt, a manifold 'sinner'. A young Russian officer, returning from a leisure life in New York to Eastern Europe, throws himself with great vigour into war action in 1914. He had been banned from his Galician home by his strict and powerful father, following some serious misdemeanours, politically and private. While in New York, a gypsy fortune teller predicts that he will be a "murderer and a saint" and that he will "sin and atone during his lifetime". This prophecy, woven like a red thread through the story, engraves itself into the young man's consciousness, increasingly influencing his actions. In this novel, published in 1934, the author compresses the many-sided realities of war and its fallout on a local population, into powerful and at times exquisitely crafted scenarios, mostly centred in and around one village Koropta in an unnamed, newly independent, country.

How much can a fortune foretold guide a person's actions? Following Tarabas life at the end of the war, the answer is: very much indeed. The swift transformation of by now 'Oberst' (Colonel) Tarabas from sinner to (not-quite) saint, when and why it happens, is as doubtful as it is essential for the totality and importance of the novel. But then, plausibility is evidently not of great concern to Roth here. At one level, and a fundamental one, the novel reads like a parable of human behaviour and morals during war and occupation, exemplified by Tarabas's excesses in both. At another level, the novel excels in highly realistic and detailed description of the circumstances in Koropta and the surrounding farms, that lead to a pogrom against the Jewish population in the village. Painful as it is to read, this section stands out in its heart wrenching intensity and power. Last but not least, in his portraits of the likes of Tarabas himself, his father, the General and, especially Tarabas's Jewish counterparts, inn-keeper Kristianpoller and sexton Shemarjah, Roth develops vivid characters that are difficult to forget.

For me, this was my first foray into Joseph Roth's work, not having attempted to read his acknowledged masterwork, THE RADETZKY MARSH, published in 1932, until now. Roth, a liberal Jewish Austrian journalist living in Berlin in the 1920s and early 1930s, left Germany in 1933 and died prematurely in 1939 in Paris at the age of 45. TARABAS was his first work published in exile. While he wrote somewhat disapprovingly about his novel later to a friend, it remains an important and deeply affecting piece of writing for the historical moment in time and with food for reflection far beyond its time. [Friederike Knabe]
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
The Legend of the Holy Murderer 27 May 2010
By H. Schneider - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
This was Roth's first novel published in exile, 1934. It is his usual compact version of material that could fill a 500 page novel. It was received with mixed comments. The less positive voices said it gave too little structure to too much material.
It is not a very complex story, but it is a very difficult story to digest. Our antihero Nikolaus Tarabas is a thoroughly dislikable man. He grew up a Russian citizen from a rich family in the Western regions of the Czar's empire. In the course of events his home region becomes an independent country but never receives a name from Roth. We learn that the region is Catholic and has a large Jewish minority.

Before NT found his calling as a ruthless and efficient front officer in war, he had a phase as a student in St.Petersburg, where he joined a political group and got caught in the preparation of an assassination. He was lucky to get away and immigrated to the US. There he became a violent and jealous drinker, got himself into trouble, (a Gypsy fortune teller has predicted that he will become a murderer and then a saint), and was lucky that WW1 broke out. He volunteered for the Russian army, went home, joined in his reserve lieutenant's uniform, was an excellent officer, made it to a captaincy.

Then revolution comes and makes him redundant. He is sent home. With 26 of his soldiers he offers himself to his new country and gets hired as a colonel with the task to build a regiment. He is not good at greater tasks though. His peak is over and he learns that soon.
He gets posted to a town that is much afraid of peace. War was bad enough, but what now, what horrors are going to come now?
The town has a Jewish population. NT is a man with deeply rooted anti-Semitic feelings.

At this time, the narrative slows down. While most events so far were told as if in fast forward mode, now we watch the unfolding of events that lead to a pogrom, in slow motion. Key event is the discovery, by rebellious soldiers, that a wall in a Jewish pub has a painting of the Virgin Mary under its plaster. The Mother of God has descended on us! Good catholic peasants and soldiers start a riot which leads to a pogrom.

By this time, NT is already a half broken man. He has started to doubt himself, his abilities and his role in life. When he commits an act of personal cruelty against a Jew during the crisis, he breaks down and breaks out of his life pattern. He becomes a repentant sinner and a vagrant. He dies in a monastery after reassuring himself that the victim of his cruelty has forgiven him.

The novel has two main streams of narrative: the `sin and redemption' story is set in a background narrative of the `peace to end all peace' history of the post WW1 experience in Central and Eastern Europe. Roth is often misunderstood as preaching nostalgia for the lost days of Kakania. Not so. He was a lamenter of the horrors that came after the relative stability of the pre WW1 world.
The tale of the anti-Semitic riots serves as a focal point for the novel and for NT's life. It is a brilliant piece of prose. Jewish/Catholic conflicts are part of the broader picture that Roth paints.

I wonder why Roth abstained from giving the new country a name. We all know that it is likely to be Poland (though it might also be Lithuania). Roth was from the Austrian part of Poland after all. Many of his stories are rooted in Galicia. This one here is deliberately vague about its site.
Is this novel among Roth's great achievements? All in all I would say no, but it deserves 5 stars any day.
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