Nicholas Tarabas, a Russian peasant, is thrust into a maelstrom of events that lead him to curse his life. When he was young, he had been told by a gypsy that his destiny was to be both murderer and saint. He becomes involved in a revolutionary group in Russia prior to World War I and is forced by his father to leave his homeland after a bombing incident, though a court found Tarabas not responsible. Not long after arriving in the alien world of New York, Tarabas kills a man while in a jealous rage, and again he must flee.
World War I has begun, and Tarabas joins the Russian army. He returns home to a cold reception from his family. The army becomes his sole purpose for living. Achieving the rank of a colonel, Tarabas terrorizes the people of the town where he is stationed, especially those who are Jewish. At intervals throughout the book, he remembers the gypsy’s predictions: He has proved himself to be a murderer; when will he become saintly?
The last part of the novel follows Tarabas after the war, after the Russian Revolution, back to the town he had terrified, searching for forgive-ness so that he can die in peace. He is buried in the town’s cemetery and given the epitaph “Colonel Nicholas Tarabas, a Guest on Earth.” An odd epitaph in the town of Koropta, but it is appropriate for a man who never seemed to belong in any one place for very long.
Joseph Roth, an Austrian author forced out of his country because of the rise of Nazism, has constructed a powerful saga. The author was a journalist early in his career, and his prose style reflects that training. Roth is not an innovative author, but he does not overwork words. He is concise and emotionally forthright, with a style that harks back to the nineteenth century realists. TARABAS is one of his later novels, written when he was living in exile in Paris, just five years before he died an alcoholic in a hospital there. The reader can be very thankful that Overlook Press is publishing Roth’s entire body of work. TARABAS was first published in English in 1934, but the novel speaks to the reader now as forcefully as it did then.