Friday 6 August 2010


A soldier is on his way home after being confined to a Russian prison camp during the Great War. He fetches up in an Eastern European town in the Hotel Savoy, his first taste of civilized Europe in ages. At first it seems like a return to the pre-war verities: a soft mattress, maids with starched collars, a certain settled way of life that had gone on for ages. But he soon realises that, if the hotel is a microcosm of Europe, it is a microcosm of a Europe that has changed in a fundamental way, and can never return to its past glories.

Much like Thomas Mann, Roth tells a story that resonates on the literal and the allegorical level, with various characters and events standing in for the larger currents that would continue to wash over postwar Europe for the next decade, eventually plunging the continent and ultimately much of the world back into war. Unlike Mann, Roth conveys a gritty, lived-in feel, full of odours, stains and earthy humour, very far away from the middle-class anguish of Mann's protagonists. In that sense, his works are closer to the rambunctious, garrulous yarns of Bohumil Hrabal, which are not without their own dark side, perhaps not quite as dark and bitter as the underpinnings of Roth's vision, however farcical or absurd individual scenes may be. Like Bulgakov, Roth has a flair for group and crowd scenes for picking out the most telling moments and images to illuminate his history-haunted narrative.

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