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The Leviathan By Joseph Roth (New Directions Pearl)

Last update - Monday, August 15, 2011, 19:31 By Metro Éireann

Book Review by Ifedinma Dimbo

In The Leviathan, German author Joseph Roth tells the story of Nissen Piczenik, a renowned coral merchant who lives in a rural village of Progrody. Piczenik’s excellent craftsmanship, the quality of his corals and his honesty combine to endear him to all and sundry both near and far, who do not mind the distance travelled or money they will spend to buy from him. Piczenik’s reputation precedes him, and it has made him a very wealthy man.
But there is a dark side to Nissen Piczenik. He is an obsessive person, obsessed by not only his corals but also by the sea, for even though he trades in the product of the sea he has never seen one. As a result of his obsession, Piczenik does not derive any joy from his house, his environment, his wealth, or even the companionship of his wife. All he wants is the opportunity to visit the source of his beloved corals.
So when an off-duty sailor offers the opportunity to sail with him, Piczenik jumps at the offer. But on his return, his life is turned upside down, and after one unsettling circumstance too many, he sells off everything, leaves his wife and goes off to the big wide ocean. At this juncture what was a straightforward if quirky story taking the reader to a different realm altogether.
Whether we want to link The Leviathan to its dictionary meaning of a monster or to take the allegorical view, I think we’d somehow arrive at the same point. Piczenik’s obsession is a monster that seizes the mind, and ultimately brings about ruination. In other words, when obsession is given full reign, it will either make or break a person. With this slim but powerful 64-page novella, translated by Michael Hofmann, Roth presents us with the full implications of an obsessive mind and its downfall.
The Leviathan is a gem of a story, akin to a modern folktale, but with no apparent conclusion, which in my understanding implies that what you make of the story is the answer you seek. The language is deceptively simple, like what you’d expect as a child hearing a tale from your grandmother as you all sat cross-legged, with eyes trained to pinpoint the mouth that was telling the story. It brims with the symbolic realism that is true to every generation, and as such deserves to be read.

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