Joseph Roth (1894-1939) gave his novel "Tarabas" (1934) the subtitle "A guest on this earth" and wrote a story that can compete easily with Fyodor Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment" (1866) with which it is thematically related. "Tarabas" tells the story of Colonel Nikolaus Tarabas who is sent as a young man by his father in the American exile because he took part on an attack against the governor of Cherson. But Tarabas does not find his way in New York, where he drinks and almost kills the owner of a bar because of jealousy. A gypsy-woman predicts him that he would become a murderer and a saint. Before he is caught by the police, a military ship brings him back to Russia where the war just started. He makes a quick military career. When a revolution breaks out, a red-haired Jew tells him that the war is over, and Tarabas in his rage tears his beard out. After he realizes what he has done, he resigns form the army and wanders as a beggar through the lands. His health gets worse and worse, and overloaded with guilt, his only wish before his death is to ask the red-haired Jew for forgiveness. The Jew, who got practically insane, forgives him, and Colonel Nikolaus Tarabas is buried with military honor in his hometown Koropta. Father Eustachius who had accompanied the strange colonel to his death, writes the following words on his gravestone: "Here rests Colonel Nikolaus Tarabas, a guest on this earth".
The main topic of both novel and film is the relationship of crime, guilt and punishment (or forgiveness, respectively). Unlike crime which is a fact, at least in view of a codex of law and thus more or less objective, guilt is a feeling and thus necessarily subjective. Since in our world the logical values "positive" and "negative" correspond with the ethical values "good" and bad", subjectivity is always bad, and since feelings are by definition subjective, they are a priori bad and have to be punished like other crimes. Moreover, since guilt is the conviction of an individual that other persons are right that this individual has committed a crime, it is a reflexive mechanism of self-punishment and differs from a crime like an image from an object in front of the mirror. And mirror images can be distorted. In addition, for society, the mapping of guilt onto somebody is a very easy strategy of getting rid of the responsibility by letting somebody execute himself. But this mechanism would not work without sufficient ideological background, and this background is supplied by religion, which is based on the bad conscience of an individual as a result of guilt. Therefore, if one would abolish religion, the concept of guilt would hang in the air, and, deprived from its foundations, the whole mechanism of ascribing guilt to someone would not work anymore and society would have to claim responsibility for their executions. But Colonel Nikolaus Tarabas is one of its infinite victims. He is a guest on this earth because he combines in himself the roles of murderer and saint in a chiastic manner of being offender and victim at the same time. Since such chiasms are not part of the logical system of our world, the Colonel can only be a guest on this earth.
Michael Kehlmann filmed Joseph Roth's novel in a congenial way. I cannot understand why this movie was never put on VHS or DVD. It is a true gem that can hardly be overestimated.
Prof. Dr. Alfred Toth
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