The Leviathan

The Leviathan was first published in this translation by Michael Hofmann in 2001 in the Collected Shorter Fiction of Joseph Roth, and more recently as part of the New Directions Pearls series of long short stories. It is apparently one of the last pieces of fiction he wrote, and it does have a certain elegiac quality. It’s rather unusual central character, Nissen Piczenik, makes his living in the small village of Progrody by selling coral to the local farmers who believe it is good luck (“guaranteed to be effective against the Evil Eye or spiteful neighbours and wicked witches”). Despite his lifelong association with coral he has never seen the sea:

“…there was in his heart a vague longing which he couldn’t quiet explain: Nissen Piczenik, born and having lived all his life in the middle of a great land mass, longed for the sea.”

He gets his chance when the son of a fellow merchant who has joined the navy returns to Progrody to visit his family. Piczenik questions him at length and eventually decides to accompany him back to his ship in Odessa.

“He felt at home by the water, as he had never felt at home in Progrody, where he was born and had lived all his life.”

This underlying sense of dissatisfaction with life is common to much of Roth’s writing, as is his representation of the future as something to be feared. In The Leviathan, the future is represented by a rival coral merchant, Lakatos, who is able to considerably undercut Piczenik’s prices by selling artificial coral:

“You’re from the old school,” (Lakatos says to Piczenik) “and if you’ll pardon the expression, you’re a bit behind the times.”

Piczenik is soon mixing the fake coral with his real coral but this plan backfires when a child wearing a chain of fake coral dies from diphtheria. Piczenik’s business collapses but he finds himself unmoved:

“He sensed that within a year, or maybe only six months, he would be the laughing-stock of the town – but what did he care? Progrody wasn’t his home, his home was the ocean.”

As with many of his short stories, Roth perfectly captures the feel of village life. The illiterate Piczenik, with his routines and superstitions, is entirely believable, as is his inarticulate longing for something more. The leviathan comes to represent that unknown, fuelled by Piczenik’s narrow and naïve view of the world, but also suggesting the unquenchable human desire to look beyond our limited lives. In this way, Piczenik becomes Roth’s most unlikely hero.

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