“But, my friends, let me digress for a moment, and forgive me for keeping you here: I wish today that we were still the old grains of dust! Our lives were ordered not by laws but by whims.”
My final entry for German Literature Month is Joseph Roth’s Confession of a Murderer. The tale of tangled identity, jealousy and class envy is told by an observer narrator–a man who has no connection to the story, but he has the ability to listen. The narrator lives in Paris opposite a Russian restaurant called Tari-Bari. It’s an odd sort of place, and since this is post Russian Revolution, the place is full of Russian emigrants. The narrator notes that in the restaurant, “time played no part.”
A tin clock hung on the wall. Sometimes it stopped, sometimes it was wrong; its purpose seemed to be not to tell the time, but to ridicule it. No one looked at the clock. Most of the guests in this restaurant were Russian emigrants. And even those amongst them who, in their own country, might have had a sense of punctuality and exactitude, seemed now, in a foreign land, either to have lost it or to be ashamed of displaying it. Yes, it was as though those emigrants were consciously demonstrating against the calculating, the all-calculating and so very calculated, deliberations of the European West.
Complementing the idea that a sense of time doesn’t play much of a role at the restaurant, patrons have an “alcoholic breakfast,” and even though the place closes, patrons remain inside; some even sleep there. But the timelessness that pervades the restaurant goes beyond the sleeping and drinking past regular hours. For these people, in many ways, time stands still. Their lives in Russia have been interrupted. Some emigres managed to adapt to their new lives while, for others, they are frozen in time.
Of all the patrons in the restaurant, the narrator is drawn, not in a pleasant way, to one particular man. He smiles at the narrator and is nice enough, but it’s an odd smile which “disturbed” the narrator. One day, this man, Golubchik, relates his story to the entire restaurant. He’s sometimes addressed as “our murderer” and freely admits that he was once a police spy. But if he was a member of the secret police, why is he tolerated? So Golubchik tells his story; he was the bastard son of Prince Krapotkin and a married peasant woman. He grows up knowing that he’s different (he thinks that means ‘special’) and fanned by the notion that he’s the son of a prince, he decides to seek out his father in order to claim his, as he sees it, birth right. On the way to Odessa to see his father, he has a fateful meeting with a mysterious character, a well-dressed Hungarian named Lakatos. Lakatos befriends Golubchik and after a huge meal and a lot of alcohol, Golubchik tells his story to his new friend. Lakatos encourages Golubchik to confront the prince.
Lakatos, complete with a limp, is a devilish figure who leads the clueless Golubchik to his moral doom, “straight to hell.” Soon embroiled in the labyrinthine layers of murky state bureaucracy, Golubchik finds himself a member of the Ochrana. While Golubchik’s life becomes arguably more interesting, it also grows more confusing–especially when he’s sent to Paris and is assigned to spy on a dressmaker and his models. Here, Golobchik runs into his arch enemy. … Well at least the man he thinks is his arch enemy, Prince Krapotkin’s son–his legitimate son.
This is a tale of tangled identity: Golubchik is a peasant yet longs to be a prince and claim his so-called birth-right. As a spy, opportunities arise for Golubchik to use his power to usurp Prince Kraptokin’s son, but he’s bucking the rigidity of the class system. There’s a comic element here to be found in Golubchik’s fate. Here’s a man who is a spy and yet in some ways he’s completely clueless.