Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Legend of the Holy Drinker

There is really nothing that people get used to so readily as miracles, once they have experienced them two or three times. Yes! In fact, such is human nature that people begin to feel betrayed when they don’t keep getting all those things that a chance and fleeting circumstance once bestowed on them. People are like that—so why should Andreas be any different? He spent the rest of the day in various other establishments, and was soon quite reconciled to the fact that the age of miracles he had lately experienced was now, finally, at an end, and that the preceding age had resumed. And so, with his heart set on that slow decline for which a drunkard is always available—and which no sober person can possibly understand!—Andreas took himself back to the banks and bridges of the Seine.

The Legend of the Holy Drinker by Joseph Roth is a sparkling novella about Andreas, a drunkard (translator Michael Hofmann uses the wonderful term 'clochard') living under the bridges of Paris. Andreas experiences a host of minor miracles, starting with a generous gift from a devotee of St Thérèse de Lisieux. Andreas promises to repay this gift to the chapel of the devotee’s choosing. The only things as consistent as Andreas’ lucky breaks are the obstructions, usually self-induced, that prevents Andreas from successfully repaying the gift. As Andreas demonstrates through his actions, though, he has a good soul despite his reduced state. While some of the obstructions come from his generosity, many of the obstacles come from his carnal desire or less than generous behavior by others.

The novella taps into themes such as generosity of spirit, possibility of redemption, and nobility in the downtrodden, any of which have the possibility to turn ponderous or preachy but never reach that point in Roth’s skillful hands. Andreas’ constant memory lapses, caused by alcohol, reinforce his live-for-the-moment philosophy. His drinking becomes a self-induced remedy to lose his sense of self. A theme in The Radetzky March I didn't develop as much as I should have was a sense of estrangement, which Andreas exhibits physically and spiritually. It turns out Andreas is really a Pole staying in Paris despite his work papers long expired. In addition, it seems there is little use for a flawed saint, who will not be prayed to but exists to be preyed upon by others. Highly recommended.

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