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on 15 September 2003
The Radetzky March, which precedes this book, is a big, fully conceived novel of the last days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, with memorable and unique characters from the von Trotta family, vivid description, and narrative and thematic unity. The Emperor's Tomb, by contrast, is an incomplete outline, lifeless, cold, and mournful. Continuing the story of the Trotta family, this time concentrating on a branch of the family which did not receive a title or its privileges, Roth attempts to bring Austrian history from World War I up to 1938, the year of the book's publication.
In 1914 Franz Ferdinand Trotta is a young man with no real goals, other than pleasure. When the Emperor declares war, he becomes a soldier on the Eastern front and, very quickly, a prisoner of war sent to Siberia. Upon his eventual release and return to Vienna after the war, he finds the monarchy gone, the financial system in disarray, and his personal life in tatters. What remains--and never changes--is Trotta's lack of direction, his lack of purpose, and, most distressingly, his lack of motivation regarding his future.
Trotta's refusal to recognize that he can and must now assume power over his own life leaves the reader with a character for whom there can be no epiphany and no real climax. Trotta is a throw-back, insisting even twenty years after the war, "I still belong to a palpably vanished world, a world in which it seem[s] plain that a people exists to be ruled and that, therefore, if it wishes to continue being a people it cannot rule itself." Though the political situation in post-war Vienna, leading to the rise of Hitler, could have led to a chilling, dramatic story, Roth steers clear of this, choosing instead to memorialize the vanished past by giving us a character whose failure to adapt to change reflects some of the very characteristics which destroyed the empire he mourns. Mary Whipple