Mario Bellatin

Jacob the Mutant

The Wait

The forms remained in suspense. The men’s skin perpetually wet. A golem. A dozen boiled eggs. No mutation was produced. All that appeared was the image of some sheep grazing among rocks.

The Border

Jacob Pliniak is presented to the reader as one of the simplest beings in the world. Considered a rabbi in his small community, he dedicates a good part of his day to teaching Scripture to the village families’ children. He is married to Julia and together they own a tavern called The Border. The young Anselm helps them with their tasks. The days are hectic. Jacob Pliniak rises at dawn. Following the ritual prayers, and his baths — fully clothed and with cold water, as if a personal penance — he awaits the arrival of his pupils, who enter the shed out back in silence. Just shortly prior, the bustle in the tavern has come to a close. Many of those present — soldiers and peasants in flight, or women, for the most part, of unknown origin — sleep among the tables, a sleep provoked by the excesses of the night. Julia and the young Anselm have managed the tavern until early morning. They’ve been attentive to the guests all the while trying their best not to meddle with their conduct. Julia has gone to sleep at daybreak, in the bed that Jacob Pliniak has just left. The wife will not get up until noontime. Before drifting to sleep, making out the sounds of Jacob Pliniak’s bath, Julia tends to wonder about that very peculiar way in which her husband does penance. She likewise asks herself why he has never been taken for a legitimate rabbi. In reality, he was not a rabbi in the full sense of the word. If he were, his wife would not be allowed to manage the tavern, even less so until the early morning hours. The Border was perhaps one of the least known works of the Austrian writer Joseph Roth. A complete translation has yet to surface, although fragments have shown up, like the lines offered above, in specialty magazines in Paris and on the West Coast of the States. The Stroemfeld publishing house in Frankfurt holds an old edition in its archives that is believed to be complete, while the independent publishing house Kiepenheuer & Witsch has another version that, many hold, is just composed of a series of fragments. Nobody knows why, but to this day neither of the two has been published. Many exegetes assert that a more thorough investigation has yet to be carried out, one that would allow the compilation of the immense quantity of papers dispersed about that are thought to compose the book in its totality. It is not known what Joseph Roth thought of this novel. Given that he never finished it, he did not live to see it published. One of the women who accompanied him in his final years — an English investigator based out of Paris — insists that the writer never parted from the text, and that he always went about writing it in a state of complete inebriation. In some way, it seems to be the novel whose editing he reserved for those moments when he was intoxicated. It is a curious fact that, according to the testimony of that very investigator, when he was creating The Legend of the Holy Drinker and other texts directly related to alcohol, he would not allow even a pint of beer in his presence while he wrote. That is why this text, The Border, may be considered a type of treatise created through the author’s unconscious. There is nobody in the small county of Korsiakov who does not know Jacob Pliniak’s tavern, says one of the book’s beginnings. They all know that, through its only window, it is possible to take in the panorama that spans from the town center, with the towers of that strange, mysterious castle in the background, to the small hut that serves as a border marker. On summer days, as in winter, one can see the hut lit up at night with a faint yellow light — a light that constantly seems to grow closer and then distant — transforming the border into a point of deceptive existence, the author indicates in another of the text’s openings. Both beginnings seem to have been written during Joseph Roth’s younger years, when he hadn’t yet abandoned his native Galicia. Nevertheless, it would be hasty to consider this text a developmental work, given that, in a certain way, the same narrative lines found in this novel mark his later works as well. There is also the fact that it is a text that the author never stopped writing. For some, Jacob Pliniak’s plot takes on an exceedingly basic tone. They think it merely has to do with the story of a shopkeeper, the owner of a border town tavern. The tavern, in reality, is only a cover for an escape route for scores of Jews fleeing the Russian pogroms. Those readers don’t seem to pay heed to the adventures that Jacob Pliniak will take part in years later in America, at which point he will even transform into an elderly woman: the pious Rose Plinianson. But getting back to the beginnings, the calm in Jacob Pliniak’s life — represented mainly by the religion classes he holds for the children in the region and his weekly incursions to a certain spot on the border to help his religious companions across — is visibly altered (in a definitive way, as will be seen later) when he discovers that Julia, his wife, is the young Anselm’s lover. Moreover, the two of them have planned to run away together. When Jacob Pliniak finds out about the incident, guided by the paths left deliberately by his own wife, he feigns ignorance of the relationship. He remains silent, and every morning he faces the breakfast his wife prepares for him before she heads off to sleep alone. A cup of borscht on the table and a teapot placed on the stove is what Jacob Pliniak is accustomed to finding day after day upon waking. On certain occasions he also finds a sandwich made with smoked herring, surely brought from the Baltic the night before by some traveler. Joseph Roth, in his role as creator, goes about pointing out different realities as he proceeds forward with his writing. Perhaps this task is most clearly seen in The Border. That could possibly be the reason why it is one of the author’s most cryptic and structurally complex works. Maybe that is also why the character, Jacob Pliniak, who in the middle of the narrative transforms into a woman like in Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, is one of the most curious characters in literary history. There is no doubt that he is, at the very least, the strangest character thought up by our author. Some believe that he is a character who is not entirely complete — that he more so served the author as an inspiration for the construction of other, more complete heroes like the memorable Isaac in Job, the shopkeeper Nissen in The Leviathan, or the inspector Anschelbum, famous for his zeal in controlling the region’s weights and measures. Others think that he is, definitively, an innovation of what was traditionally known as a character. This appreciation can be taken on more clearly by seeing how Jacob Pliniak manages to get the Russian Jews from one side of the border to the other. Thursday is set aside for bringing the exodus to fruition. On those days he does not wait for the students’ arrival at his house for study. The people in the surrounding areas know that, apart from the traditional Sabbath, Thursdays have also been set aside as a type of holy day. At dusk Jacob Pliniak makes his way to a point on the border that no one else knows, situated at the ford of a less-than-plentiful river, where he crosses without removing his clothes. The issue of the waters and the clothing forms a part of his personal ritual. According to Jacob Pliniak, each time that somebody bathes with clothes on he is repeating his communion with God. It is not common that someone considered the rabbi of his community be afforded this time for personal interpretations. No less, Jacob Pliniak’s behavior is full of actions that, in some way, contradict the Scriptures. He then walks a half an hour to the house of his accomplice, known as the mysterious Macaque, the very one who years later, in New York City, would become the stage actress Norah Kimberley. He returns at midnight, bringing behind him a line of immigrants. Macaque has paid him his share of the money, that those men have given over for his assistance in their escape from the country, in rubles. The following day it will have to be Julia, Jacob Pliniak’s wife, who exchanges them in a grains shop where the owners speculate as to fluctuations in the coins of both regions. The immigrants stay hidden for two nights in the tavern. On Saturday morning, the group of refugees is brought up, stealthily, to a wagon driven by a lanky man. In those moments, Jacob Pliniak abandons his prayer room, situated a few yards from the tavern, and goes out to wish the unfortunate luck on their voyage. One of the most surprising discoveries for literature, not just for that of Joseph Roth but for all of twentieth-century literature, seems to be in the mechanism for how a role assigned to a particular character drifts, quite suddenly, into another, completely different one. Precisely when the reader assumes, quite plausibly, not just Jacob Pliniak’s presence in the text but, especially, his right to remain in its structure, our character transforms, with no great leap, into his supposed adopted daughter, Rose Plinianson, the highest authority of the women’s committee in the town where she lives. It all begins when, without any interruption, at a certain point in the plot, Jacob Pliniak finds himself living in America. He discovers himself in New York City, investigating the whereabouts of the actress Norah Kimberley, well known for her work in the traveling theater groups of the time. Jacob works in a store that markets goods, whose owner is one of the men that he helped cross the border years back. Jacob Pliniak is grateful to God that his ship was the last one able to enter the country without an entry visa required of its passengers. During the voyage, which was on the verge of ending in tragedy when, midway across the ocean, the navigation instruments on the ship broke, he became a spiritual brother to a boy named Abraham. That boy, whose origin lay in the Caucasus region, had witnessed, while hidden among rocks where he usually grazed his sheep, his village being burned down, with its inhabitants enclosed in the small synagogue. The presence in this passage, not only of this spiritual brother, Abraham, but also of the sheep, and above all, the fact that they grazed in a rocky place, stands out. It is apparent that in this part of the story, Joseph Roth is highlighting, in a direct way, the work’s mystical nature. Nevertheless, it does not cease to be strange that, during his ship’s passage through danger, there is no mention made of any fear of the Leviathan, that deep sea monster present in the majority of tales of this nature. Despite all else, the reference to the rocky place and the sheep is an element that cannot go unnoticed. Two years after his arrival, on one of the busiest streets, Jacob Pliniak stumbles not upon Norah Kimberley, but rather Julia, his old wife. The young Anselm has left her and she has a daughter named Rose. The woman carries out small tasks for community members, but essentially lives off public charity. Jacob takes pity on her. He suggests that they travel to the West Coast together. That is where Abraham Pliniak is living, his spiritual brother, who more than once has sent a letter begging for a reunion. In a very short time, Abraham had managed to amass a small fortune buying land from the few colonists left in the region. He then sold it to a group of refugees seeking a permanent place to settle down and live. Finding his old wife in those conditions seemed to be the sign for Jacob Pliniak to set out on the trip that his brother begged of him. He felt as if he were being given a second chance. He saw in Julia the possibility of having many children — something he had not been able to accomplish in his homeland, mainly due to the constant worry over Russian pogroms. He wanted children capable of passing his spiritual legacy along to future generations. He was even willing to accept Rose as his own daughter. Without thinking twice, he quit his job, picked up Julia and his daughter from the miserable room where they lived, and made the long journey by bus. Abraham Pliniak (nobody knows the reason why, when they became brothers on the ship, he took on Jacob’s surname, instead of his family, murdered in the village synagogue) designated a parcel of land to them on the shores of a lake. He then helped them raise a house. Initially, Jacob Pliniak thought of starting up a similar business, a tavern, like the one he had had in Korsiakov. He would rely on his wife Julia, who could help him with administration. They could, by the same token, appeal to a young man with no work, whom they would seek out among the children of the immigrant families, to collaborate. Jacob Pliniak seemed to want, once again, to wake up each day right when his wife, exhausted, sought rest. To find, just as before, his bowl of borscht placed on the stove. Although he would have liked to set up a business that only operated at night, having a tavern again didn’t seem like a good idea after all. It would be like returning to the past. He left these plans behind. He was content with the task of spreading the ideas found in the sacred texts. Jacob Pliniak became a teacher once again, very close to what could be considered a rabbi. He once again was close to children. He enjoyed going over, as if for the first time, the most suggestive passages of the Torah and Zohar. This, in turn, reinforced his desire to have children. At this point in the novel, a phrase appears that could be interesting in the context of understanding the author’s idea for taking on such a writing exercise. It asserts that, when Jacob Pliniak found out that he would once again interpret the sacred books for the community’s children, he said, to himself, that the letters and names are not just conventional means of communication. He asserted, rather, that they are actually the means by which faith carries out its own annihilation. It is precisely at this point, when Jacob Pliniak has uttered such a sentence, that we discover in the text that his work as a rabbi does not endure any great length of time. Nor does his interest in having children, one after another. Many of the families rooted in the region have begun to abandon their ancient beliefs. They have begun to try and forget the religion of their ancestors. At this moment Jacob Pliniak faces perhaps his life’s most important crisis of faith. Unfortunately it is not possible to compare the passages of this book, The Border, with aspects of the private life of its writer, Joseph Roth. It will never be known under what circumstances he conceived any one of the book’s chapters. Bringing forth such an investigation could have, in some way, clarified certain problematic aspects of the tale that do not seem at all clear from even a literary perspective or a mystical point of view. It is only known that Roth worked on this text constantly, as he gave shape to other books; and that many of the abrupt changes in narration were attributable to reasons of a personal nature… that he even left many of the most significant pages lost for good. The fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the writer’s wanderings through Europe, his adaptation to the prevailing German culture in Vienna, the rise of National Socialism, his uncontrollable alcoholism and his final condition as a poor and desperate refugee in Paris — a circumstance that ultimately brings him to a type of suicide — become a kind of unattainable key to the story. Maybe this is why the author narrates, at this point, a truly extraordinary event, that for many holds a relationship to the Jewish Sephirot, that is, to the sphere of divine emanations, in which the creative power of God unfolds. It has already been mentioned that Jacob Pliniak has acquired a plot of land on a lake; that he has constructed, with the help of his spiritual brother, a house where he lives with Julia, his wife, and Rose, his wife’s daughter whom he loves as if she were his own. It is also known that Jacob Pliniak has become a type of rabbi in a community characterized by its members’ slow and steady abandonment of their religion. Despite all of that, at this time he continues developing his personal ideas about water and the body. Thus he continues bathing himself, fully clothed, at unsuspected moments, soaking his feet in trays for hours upon hours, placing his hands in containers of salt water until his skin prunes up. The out of the ordinary fact described by Joseph Roth occurs when Jacob Pliniak submerges in the lake to carry out his daily ritual ablutions. Instants later he returns to the surface, having transformed into his own daughter. But not into the girl that we’ve known until now, but rather into an elderly woman, eighty years of age. Jacob Pliniak has acquired the body of an old woman, in whose memory the existence of a Jacob Pliniak is perhaps logged, a dead man that drowned while performing his ablutions in a lake upon whose shores he built his house. It’s important to point out that in the Kabbalah these transformations that entail person, gender, and time are referred to as “Aphoristic Pools.” The further distanced the person, gender, and time of the transformation, the closer the story comes to another dimension. Perhaps this is why the writer Joseph Roth dares not to just create this very particular episode, but also, just lines ahead, to insist that in the town, the one which the elderly woman Rose Plinianson must now face, hundreds of dance academies have sprung up.