The Bible’s Job, “a perfect and upright
man,” suffers so much that he regrets the
day he was born. Platitudinous friends tell
him that there must be a reason he is being
punished, yet he steadfastly rejects their pious
rationalizations in a dialogue that occupies
most of the Biblical narrative. Joseph Roth’s
Job proposes a 20th century version of the Biblical
parable of loss and restoration, and Ross
Benjamin’s graceful new translation of this
80-year-old work makes an excellent reason
to revisit it.
Roth’s protagonist, the Russian Jew
Mendel Singer, also falls into despair as he
gradually loses what is most precious to him,
but he spends little time debating with
friends. Instead Singer goes about his impoverished everyday life in the shtetl, which Roth describes with documentary scope and in
vivid details that appeal to all the senses.
When Singer, his wife, and daughter leave
Russia for New York’s Lower East Side, their
troubles worsen to the point that Singer loses the will to live.
In the end Job receives from God twice as
much as he had before in sheep, oxen, and
camels, as well as ten children. Mendel
Singer, by contrast, finds contentment
through an emotional fulfillment that he
never could have imagined. Biblical parallels
aside, Roth’s story stands on its own as an
affecting tale of a humble man’s loss, displacement, and final contentment.
The novel’s final pages include one jarring
incident. A pious man, Mendel Singer
has kept his head covered all his life. Now
that he finds himself unexpectedly at peace,
he deliberately takes off his cap and stands
bareheaded in the sun, an act that is entirely
out of character. Perhaps Joseph Roth consciously
or unconsciously was anticipating his own conversion to Catholicism, which took place not long after this book was first published.