Monday, October 17, 2011

Life With a Star by Jiri Weil published in Czech in 1949, published in English in 1989 (a novel); introduction written by Philip Roth

"[Josef Roubicek's] story stands as one of the most powerful works to emerge from the Holocaust; it is a fierce and necessary work of art." from a review in the New York Times by Michiko Kakutani on 6/9/1989

Jiri Weil (1900-1959) was a Jewish Czech writer who lived in Prague, and, according to Philip Roth’s lauditory introduction to this novel, lived a life in some ways similar to his main character Josef Roubicek. When the Nazis came to deport Weil he disappeared with the help of the resistance.

In the novel, which takes place in Prague, Roubicek at the time of the Nazi occupation is a young man who had been a bank clerk, but because of the restrictions placed on employing Jews, he has lost his job and lives starving in a garret where he’s burned most of his furnishings to keep himself warm.

Weil recreates an absurd and cruel world which takes on a surreal quality governed by Roubicek’s terror. The prose is spare and matter-of-fact, which has the effect of highlighting the horror. Roubicek knows he has been condemned even though he is innocent,  and we watch with mounting tension as he obsesses about what will happen to him next. When will his destroyers finally close in? When will he be selected to be deported?

Weil is also very adept at recreating the "Community," the part of the nightmare version of everyday life when Jew turned against Jew.The group of Jews in Prague who the Nazis designated as a governing body to enforce Nazi rules and regulations  are a terrifying presence. Roubicek lives in dread of  a message from them or a knock on the door.

Weil convincingly plumbs the psyche of his main character, his alter-ego. He also recreates the streets and neighborhoods of Prague filled with officials, as well as Roubicek's friends, acquaintances and many fellow sufferers. All of these various threads contribute to the novel's texture of reality.

Jiri Weil - author

Prague. Czechoslovakia
Stresovice neighborhood of Prague

To read an article about the History of the Jews in Prague, click here.

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