Readers of Joseph Roth's entre-les-guerres masterpiece The Radetzky March might reasonably take him for a peculiar kind of royalist. Again and again the author declares his nostalgia for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which had gone down in flames in 1918, even as he lampoons the regime's stodginess and casual cruelty. In his youth, however, he was an ardent man of the left, who earned the nickname der rote Roth: Red Roth. And his third novel, Rebellion, is perhaps the closest thing he ever wrote to an engagé work of fiction. Chronicling the trials (literal and figurative) of a downtrodden prole, Roth seems sincerely indignant--and he even allows his protagonist a fiery speech in the final pages, during which the Almighty Himself gets an effective spanking: "How impotent You are in your omnipotence! You have billions of accounts, and make mistakes in individual items? What kind of God are you?"
Prior to this point, Andreas Pum hasn't exactly been a model of biblical eloquence. After losing a leg in World War I, he's made his living as a beggar with a hurdy-gurdy, soliciting coins from passersby. This pious lamebrain does have the luck to marry a voluptuous widow, and for a brief moment he partakes of "a new and numbing blissfulness, which armors us against the offenses and hurts of the world." But a quarrel with a middle-class snob on a tram soon deprives Andreas of his wife, his beggar's license, and his freedom.
Thus begins his descent, which Roth narrates in such a rapid-fire style that this Viennese Job seems to hit bottom almost overnight. Perhaps Andreas's final jeremiad--and indeed, his transformation into a quasi-anarchist--betrays the hand of an ideological stage manager. Yet Roth was far too brilliant a novelist to dabble in social realism, and even his portrait of Andreas's sentencing judge is deliciously equivocating:
The judge himself was clean-shaven. He had an impassive face of granite majesty, like a dead emperor's. It was gray as weathered sandstone.... It was a face that might have looked heartless and implacable, had the middle of its powerful masculine chin not held an appealing, almost childlike dimple. For this diehard fan of the Dual Monarchy, of course, the comparison to a dead emperor was the highest of compliments. But it was the novelist in Roth, not the left-leaning polemicist, who decided to add the dimple. --James Marcus