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Joseph Roth: Hiob (Job, the Story of a Simple Man)

The Biblical Job is known for having suffered many afflictions, despite being a good man. Roth has taken this story and updated it to modern times (i.e. early twentieth century).

Our Job is called Mendel Singer and he lives in Zuchnow, a fictitious town in Tsarist Russia. Mendel was a good man, a Jew who taught,as his only source of income, the Bible and reading. He was married to Deborah. They had three sons and a daughter. Deborah was not entirely happy with her poor life but she put up with it. Of their four children, the two older boys and the daughter, Miriam, were fine, healthy children. However, when Menuchim was born, it was clear that he was not going to be healthy. The doctor said that he would be an epileptic. The doctor proposed taking him to hospital to cure him but Mendel would have none if it. No doctor can cure him if God doesn’t will it.

Deborah visited a rabbi who told her that Menuchim would get better but not for a long while. His siblings were given the task of looking after him and they resented it and made life difficult for Menuchim but, somehow, he survived. He could not speak and could barely walk. Deborah essentially abandoned her other children to devote herself to her youngest.

More things start going wrong. The two older boys – Jonas and Shemariah – are called up to fight for the Tsar. Deborah finds a contact who might be able to help them get out of it. However, when she raises it in the family, Jonas insists that he wants to join the family and even leaves the family to live with a friend while awaiting joining the army. So she makes arrangements for Shemariah to cross the border. Suddenly she is left with only two children. Meanwhile things get worse when it turns out that Miriam has a Cossack boyfriend.

Eventually, they hear from Shemariah, now Sam, who has made it to the United States and invites his parents and siblings to join and is prepared to pay for the tickets. Jonas, however, is adamant that Menuchim will not make the journey. They therefore decide to give their house to some poorer neighbours, provided they look after Menuchim, and off they go the United States, where they are in a strange country with a strange language and a strange culture.

However, Mendel, Deborah and Miriam soon adapt. Sam has a store, which provides work for his sister and he helps out his parents, both of whom seem to be fairly happy, soon making friends. God, however, has not forgotten Mendel and misfortune soon strikes, helped by World War I, with Jonas going missing, no-one knowing what has happened to Menuchim and Sam enlisting in the US army.

I am no longer Mendel Singer, I am the remains of Mendel Singer. America has killed us. America is a fatherland, but a deadly fatherland. God is also condemned. Mendel seems to be setting fire to his room and his friends run to his aid.

So tell us what you want to burn!”
“I want to burn God.

As in the Bible, it is not entirely clear why God is punishing Mendel, except to test him and his faith. In that respect, Mendel clearly fails. For those of us who do not believe in an arbitrary, punishing God or, indeed, in any god, it would simply seem that Mendel has had a run of bad luck. It is not, for example, unusual for someone to have a handicapped child, particularly in those days when modern medicine was only just getting started, Nor was it unusual to have your sons called up and, indeed, for one or more of them to be missing, wounded or killed. Mendel does suffer other punishments, despite the fact that he is essentially a good, decent man but, for a Jew born in the Russian Empire of the late nineteenth century, life was never likely to be easy.

This is considered to be one of Roth’s masterpieces and while I am not entirely sure that that is the case, it is nevertheless an interesting take on an old story and clearly shows,as Roth tends to do in his books, the turmoil that people faced in central Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Publishing history

First published 1930 by Kiepenheuer,, Berlin
First English translation 1931 by The Viking Press
Translated by Dorothy Thompson (earlier editions), Ross Benjamin (Archipelago edition)