The Silent Prophet

Joseph Roth

The Silent Prophet


On New Year’s Eve 1926–1927 I was sitting with some friends and acquaintances in Moscow in room Number Nine of the Bolshaia Moskovskaia Hotel. For some of those present this private mode of celebrating the New Year was the only one possible. Their views would clearly have permitted them a public expression of festive spirit. But certain considerations had to be taken into account, and to be feared. They could mix neither with foreigners nor with the local citizens and although each and every one of them had functioned long and often as an observer to further an idea, he rightly shunned becoming himself the object of observation.

In my room there floated the haze of cigarette smoke familiar to those acquainted with the novels of Russian literature. I opened intermittently the small transom of the window — my guests had restrained me from opening the entire window — and presently the door, which led into the corridor and through which entered the sounds of music, voices, glasses, footsteps, song.

‘Do you realize,’ said Grodzki, a Ukrainian Pole who had worked for a long time for the Cheka in Tokyo, and for whom I had developed a certain fellow feeling when he approached me with the request to write some reports about me and I had replied at once that I still recalled his activities in Japan. … ‘Do you realize,’ asked Grodzki, ‘who used to live here three years ago, in this very room, Number Nine?’ A few regarded him questioningly. For a few seconds he made the most of the silence. Like many of those who had been employed in the secret service, he craved not only to know something but to have known about it longer than anyone else. ‘Kargan,’ he said after a pause. ‘Oh, him!’ exclaimed B., a journalist whose orthodoxy was well-known. ‘Why so scornful?’ said Grodzki. ‘Because we have probably already harboured several of his kind here, in this room Number Nine,’ replied B. with a glance in my direction.

The others joined in. Almost all professed to have known Kargan and almost all expressed a more or less critical view of him. The appellations invented by orthodox theory for revolutionaries with an intellectual past are familiar and I need hardly rehearse the meaning of the wording of each. ‘Anarchist,’ exclaimed one, ‘sentimental rebel,’ another, ‘intellectual individualist,’ a third.

I may possibly have seized the opportunity to defend Kargan rather too eagerly just then. Although I suspected him at that time of being in Paris, and not without reason, I felt quite unaccountably as if he were now my guest and that it was my duty to protect him. Possibly Grodzki’s information that Kargan had lived in this room of mine years before provoked me to a long speech in his defence. It was not, in fact, a speech. It was a history. It was an attempt at a biography. Apart from Grodzki, whose vocation compelled him to know everybody, I was the best placed of all those present to know everything about the man attacked. I began my narration, supported by Grodzki, and both of us did not finish that night. I continued the story the next night and the third night; but by the third night the listeners had dwindled to two. They were the only ones not officially obliged or afraid to hear the truth.

In consequence I felt it necessary for my narrative to reach a more extensive audience than my voice could provide. I decided to write down what I had been recounting.

Kargan’s life is described below, set out in the same sequence as it was recounted then. The interruptions of the listeners, their gestures, their jokes, their questions, are omitted. Omitted too, even deliberately suppressed, are certain indications that might lead to Kargan’s identification and might further the reader’s natural impulse to recognize in the individual portrayed a definite, historically existing personality. Kargan’s life-story is as little related to actual events as any other. It is not intended to exemplify a political point of view — at most, it demonstrates the old and eternal truth that the individual is always defeated in the end.

Is Friedrich Kargan destined finally to sink into oblivion?

In the light of news of him received by some of his friends, indirectly but reliably, some weeks ago, he seems to have abandoned any intention to seek out the civilized part of the world of his own accord. It is therefore possible that one day he will be engulfed in empty solitude, unnoticed and without trace, like a falling star in a silent obscure night. Then his end would remain unknown, as until now were his early beginnings.

Book One


Friedrich was born in Odessa, in the house of his grandfather, Kargan, the rich tea merchant. He was an unwanted, because illegitimate, child, the son of an Austrian piano-teacher named Zimmer to whom the rich tea merchant had refused his daughter. The piano-teacher vanished from Russia, old Kargan had him sought for in vain after he had learned of his daughter’s pregnancy.

Six months later he sent her and the new-born child to his brother, a wealthy merchant in Trieste. In this man’s home Friedrich spent his childhood. It passed not altogether unhappily, even though he had fallen into the hands of a benefactor.

Only when his mother died — at an early age and of a disease that was never accurately identified — was Friedrich quartered in a servant’s room. On holidays and special occasions he was allowed to eat at the same table as the children of the house. He preferred the company of the domestics, from whom he learned the pleasures of life and a distrust of the lords and masters.

At primary school he proved far more gifted than the children of his benefactor. Therefore the latter did not allow him to continue his education but apprenticed him to a shipping agent’s, where Friedrich had the prospect, after several years, of becoming a skilled official with a monthly wage of a hundred and twenty kronen.

At that time a growing number of deserters, emigrants and refugees from the pogroms were crossing the Austrian border from Russia. The shipping agencies therefore began to set up branch establishments in the border states of the Monarchy to intercept the emigrants and despatch them to Brazil, Canada and the United States.

These branch agencies enjoyed the goodwill of the authorities. It was the government’s unconcealed desire to remove these poor, unemployed and not altogether innocuous refugees from Austria as quickly as possible; but also to convey the impression that Russian deserters would be supplied with sailing tickets and recommendations to countries overseas — to such an extent that the desire to quit the army should affect an increasing number of Russian malcontents. The authorities were probably tipped off not to keep too close an eye on the shipping agents.

However, it was not easy to find reliable and skilled staff for the frontier establishments. The older employees did not want to leave their districts, homes and families. In addition, they were unfamiliar with the languages, manners and inhabitants of the border territories. Lastly, they were also scared of a somewhat risky occupation.

In the office where Friedrich worked he was regarded as capable and diligent. He mastered several languages, among them Russian. He was a thoughtful young man. What was not appreciated was that his quiet and always alert courtesy concealed a shrewd and silent arrogance. His taciturn pride was taken for reserve. However, he hated his superiors, his instructors, his benefactor and every kind of authority. He was timid, did not participate in sports with those of his own age, he dealt no blows and received none, evaded every danger, and his fearfulness always exceeded his curiosity. He prepared to revenge himself on the world which, he believed, treated him as a second-class person. It thwarted his ambition that he could not go to high school like his fellows and cousins. He made up his mind to complete his studies one day nevertheless, to enter the high school and become a statesman, politician, diplomat — in any case someone powerful.

When it was suggested to him that he should go to one of the border subsidiaries, he immediately assented, in the hope of a lucky change of fortune and an interruption of the normal routine, which he detested. On this first journey he took with him his foresight, his cunning, and his ability to dissemble, qualities bestowed on him by nature.

Before he climbed into the passenger train which left for the east, he cast a yearning and yet reproachful glance at an elegant coffee-coloured international sleeping-car which was due to depart from Trieste for Paris.

‘One day I shall be one of the passengers in that coach,’ thought Friedrich.


Forty-eight hours later he arrived at the little border town where the Parthagener family ran a branch of the shipping agency. Old Parthagener had owned the inn, ‘The Ball and Chain’, for over forty years. It was the first house on the wide street that ran from the frontier to the town. Here the fugitives and deserters came and encountered the pure and calm serenity of the old man with the silver beard, who seemed to be a manifestation of nature’s blind intent ultimately to clothe all men, irrespective of their sins or deserts, with the white colour of dignity. Over his weak and light-sensitive eyes Herr Par ...

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