Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Radetzky March, Part Three: between lightning and thunder, eternity itself was crammed in

Most of these orders pertained to the evacuation of villages and town and the treatment of pro-Russian Ukrainians, clerics, and spies. Hasty court-martials in villages passed hasty sentences. Secret informers delivered unverifiable reports on peasants, Orthodox priests, teachers, photographers, officials. There was no time. The army had to retreat swiftly but also punish the traitors swiftly. And while ambulances, baggage columns, field artillery, dragoons, riflemen, and infantrists formed abrupt and helpless clusters on the sodden roads, while couriers galloped to and fro, while inhabitants of small towns fled westward in endless throngs, surrounded by white terror, loaded down with red-and-white featherbeds, gray sacks, brown furniture, and blue kerosene lamps, the shots of hasty executioners carrying out hasty sentences rang from the church squares of hamlets and villages, and the somber rolls of drums accompanied the monotonous decisions of judges, and the wives of victims lay shrieking for mercy before the mud-caked boots of officers, and red and silver flames burst from huts and barns, stables and haystacks. The Austrian army’s war had begun with court-martials. For days on end genuine and supposed traitors hung from the trees on church squares to terrify the living. (317)

(All quotes and page numbers are from the translation by Joachim Neugroschel.)

Roth intensifies the theme of deterioration, whether of individuals, families or empire, in Part Three. When looking at families and individuals there is an incapacitating weakness in each, often causing people to abandon their future to fate (the exceptions stand out even more because of this malaise). Weakness shows itself in many ways: increase in drunkeness, overindulgence in gambling, or shirking all responsibilities, personal or professional. Some characters, such as Lieutenant Carl Joseph von Trotta and his inheritance as the grandson of “the Hero of Solferino”, come to the realization that they have failed, not just to live up to an ideal held before them but even with more modest goals. “Not only did he have a thoroughly wicked character, but his mind was tired and foolish. In short: he was an utter failure.” (251) Carl Joseph’s father, Baron Fritz, while not sinking to the same depths as his son, realizes “how hard it is to be helpless yet maintain one’s dignity.” (267) The father and his generation usually receive the most sympathy from Roth. Their world was supposed to apply a rigid code inherited from their parents, yet such absolutes don’t seem to apply anymore. Roth provides ambiguous support for these codes of behavior, though. These codes can lead to honorable action but they also insist on mindless violence or taint future generations as well as the empire:

That lost era, which was virtually buried under the fresh grave mounds of the fallen, was ruled by very different notions. If someone offended the honor of an officer of the Imperial and Royal Army, and that officer failed to kill the man apparently because he owed him money, then that officer was a misfortune and worse than a misfortune: he was a disgrace to his progenitor, to the army, and to the monarchy. (266)

While the Trotta family realizes the benefits from their grandfather’s heroic action in saving the emperor, the legacy carries disadvantages, too, as I hope I’ve pointed out in previous posts. Roth hammers home the difficulty in choosing such a code to live by when Carl Joseph carries out selfless acts, only to find his actions lead to his financial ruin and ultimately to death. The imagery of worms feasting on the dead, appearing throughout the novel, highlights the fate of all of us. But was a similar fate unavoidable for the Austro-Hungarian Empire?

Roth conveys a sense of inevitable doom for the empire throughout the novel. At a discernable point, Baron Fritz von Trotta loses faith in the empire and simply goes through the motions when doing his duties, although it could be argued he went through the motions prior to that point since he was unable to understand the danger posed by “revolutionary” individuals or groups. The distance and friction between ethnic groups within the empire mirror the distance and friction between generations. This lack of cohesion is called out directly, in particular by the younger Nechwal (231), as well as by Roth during the summer festival held at Chojnicki’s house (296), where a laundry-list of ethnic groups argue after Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination. Parts of Roth’s novel read like a sober Hašek (irony intended) or, even more perversely, a combination of Hašek and Barbara Tuchman (I’m thinking of The Guns of August here). The shadow cast by history is felt by the empire and the emperor to the same extent it helps/burdens the Trotta family.

A few sidenotes before I finish posting on The Radetzky March:

- Roth’s use of nature can be heavy-handed at times, such as the looming storm before the summer festival. The agitation of the pending storm mirrors the conflict about to spread across Europe, where “between lightning and thunder, eternity itself was crammed in.” (294) At other times, though, he shows a humorous touch that conveys several points in a deft manner. “He [Baron Fritz von Trotta] looked gaunter than usual, reminding his friend Hasselbrunner of the exotic birds at the Schönbrunn Zoo—creatures that constitute Nature’s attempt to replicate the Hapsburg physiognomy within the animal kingdom. Indeed, the district captain reminded anyone who had seen the Kaiser of Franz Joseph himself.” (275) Everything in nature, not just the emperor’s subjects, exists to serve or mimic the Hapsburgs.

- One motif within the novel focuses on the ability to see things clearly before death. At the summer festival Carl Joseph begins to pierce the fog of alcohol, history, expectations, and delusion. In Part One Dr. Demant has a miraculous improvement in his vision immediately before his duel. Carrying this motif a step further, Chojnicki accurately predicted what was going to happen. Actually seeing it unfold, however, drives him mad.

- As I mentioned in this post, music plays a role in the novel, which is fitting given the title. Part Three adds another example of this role during the summer festival. After Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination, the crowd calls for Chopin’s Funeral March. The earlier summer performances outside the Trotta home, with the elder Nechwal directing “The Radetzky March” and insisting musicians precisely follow the score, stands in marked contrast to this performance, highlighting how much has changed:

Men in uniform or in mufti escorted ladies. Their feet unsteadily obeyed the macabre and stumbling rhythm. For the bands were playing without scores, not conducted but accompanied by the slow loops that the black batons traced in the air. Sometimes one band lagged behind the other and then tried to catch up with the hastier one by skipping a few measures.

The guests walked in a circle around the empty, mirrorlike parquet floor. They circled round and round, each person a mourner behind the corpse of the one in front of him, and, at the center of the room, the invisible corpses of the heir apparent and the monarchy. (299-300)

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