It begins like a legend and it ends like a fairy tale: Joseph Roth’s novel Job, the Story of a Simple Man, as the subtitle says.
Mendel Singer is a “pious, God-fearing and ordinary . . . everyday Jew,” who lives the life of a poor school teacher in Zuchnow, a shtetl in the then Russian part of Galicia. It’s the early 20th century and the lives of the Jews were not only threatened by poverty but also by the frequent pogroms. Emigration or involvement in one of the revolutionary political groups were the only real way out of this misery; for all the others the only relief from their difficult situation lay in the imagination. It’s the world that is described in the novels and stories of Scholem Alejchem, Isaac Bashevis Singer or Isaac Babel, or in the paintings of Marc Chagall.
Mendel Singer’s life is not different from many others: he is married, has two sons and a daughter and his life is rather uneventful. Things change when his fourth child, his son Menuchim is born. Menuchim turns out to be not able to speak (except for the only word “Mama” he is mumbling again and again) and he cannot walk properly either. Menuchim’s presence changes the whole dynamics of interaction within the family. His father gives him much more attention than to the other children, in the hope that this will enhance his development, his mother Deborah is visiting a famous rabbi in the next town to ask his advice, while in the meantime even the usual household routine suffers:
She neglected her duty at the stove, the soup boiled over, the clay pots cracked, the pans rusted, the greenish shimmering glasses shattered with a harsh crash, the chimney of the petroleum lamp was darkened with soot, the wick was charred to a miserable stub, the dirt of many soles and many weeks coated the floorboards, the lard melted away in the pot, the withered buttons fell from the children’s shirts like leaves before the winter.
Menuchim’s siblings don’t really like their brother who is such a burden to them and in one specific moment even make a half-hearted attempt to kill him, fortunately without success.
When the children grow up, things go worse and worse for Mendel Singer. While his son Jonas joins the army (usually most Jews in Russia dreaded the moment when their sons had to go to the army where they were exposed frequently to the rudest forms of anti-semitism) and even likes it there, his second son Schemarjah is deserting and emigrating to America where he soon changes his name to Sam.
The biggest problem beside Menuchim who doesn’t show any sign of development is Mendel’s daughter Mirjam, who has several affairs with soldiers and even cossacks, who had frequently a prominent role in the anti-semitic pogroms. The only way to save his daughter from the path on which she was embarking seems for Mendel Singer the emigration to America. An invitation from Sam, who sends also the money for the ship tickets through his new American friend Mac, will make it possible.
But there is a problem: the sick Menuchim cannot travel (the immigration officers at Ellis Island would send whole families back in such cases). Mendel and Deborah make for themselves all kind of excuses. If Menuchim will be healthy one day, he will join the family. In the meantime, he will stay with a good and caring family who will live in the house of the Singer’s. Deborah remembers the words of the famous rabbi: “Don’t ever leave him!” And also on Mendel, who is by then estranged from his whole family except for Menuchim to whom he feels particularly close, the moment to say goodbye is heartbreaking.
The second part of the book describes Mendel Singer’s and his family’s life in New York. Sam, together with his reliable business partner Mac is successful and able to provide a comparatively good life to his family. Jonas is writing a letter from Russia with some good news about Menuchim who surprisingly started to speak. Sam and his wife have their first child. Mirjam is having a regular job in Sam’s company. For the first time in his life, the sorrow seems to disappear from Mendel Singer’s existence. But only for a short while.
WWI breaks out and again everything changes for Mendel Singer. After some time he loses contact with Jonas, who went missing and is maybe dead. And also from Menuchim there are no more news anymore. Mendel fears the worst. After America enters the war, Sam also enlists for the army. Only a short time after he was shipped to Europe, he gets killed in combat. When Mac brings the bad news, Deborah has a breakdown and dies. Mirjam has to be admitted to a mental hospital after the outbreak of an unexplicable mental illness, probably schizophrenia.
Mendel Singer is withdrawing more and more from life. The most remarkable thing is that he stops praying. He is angry with God. What has he done to deserve such a fate? The parallel with the biblical Job is obvious.
Still, even after the complete collapse of his existence, life has a few surprises left for Mendel Singer. When a grammophone record plays a beautiful melody from his home region, Mendel finds out that this touching record is called Menuchim’s Song. And one day the composer of this song is by a strange coincidence giving a concert with his orchestra in town and is investigating about an old man, Mendel Singer. He wants to bring him some news from his son Menuchim…
Job is a great novel. It is very touching, without being sentimental. It is written in a very beautiful prose. It is well-composed. It has very interesting parallels not only with the biblical Job, but also with Joseph, Jacob’s youngest son. And it is asking interesting questions regarding belief and moral. It is a story that will stay with you for a very long time when you read it.
Joseph Roth knew about what he was writing. He was born himself into the world he is describing in Job, but he had the chance to grow up in Vienna. In the 1920s and early 1930s he worked as a journalist for the best European newspapers. His salary when he was working for the liberal Frankfurter Zeitung is said to have been the highest of any journalist. Beside from that Roth was an extremely productive author of novels and stories.
For those who don’t know him Job is (beside Radetzky March) probably the best starting point to discover his work. Since Roth objected Austro-Fascism as well as Nazism, he was forced into exile, where he drank himself slowly to death. His catholic funeral in Paris 1939 was attended by his friends, by Otto von Habsburg, the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, by representatives of the Jewish community, and by a delegation of the Austrian Communist Party. His grave is at the Cimetière parisien de Thiais, where also Paul Celan and Yevgeni Zamyatin, Leon Sedov and the Albanian king Zog are buried.
Joseph Roth: Job, transl. by Ross Benjamin, Archipelago Books, New York 2010
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