"May God grant us all, all of us drinkers, such a good and easy death!”
By far the most peculiar hagiography ever written, “The legend of the holy drinker” by Joseph Roth (1894-1939) is one of those XX century books that you may find in every bookshop, covered by the dust, left aside by the followers of simpler paths who prefer trendier texts and not understood by the masses because of its subtle title- Nonetheless, in less than 60 pages, the Austrian author deals with topics of great social importance with an unique style and a massive amount of irony between the lines.
The life and the works of Joseph Roth were characterized by regrets and moments that were not savoured enough. He was the man that almost succeeded in life, that had an almost happy marriage, whose fleeting and deceitful goal first deluded him and proved to be unreachable, nullifying all of his efforts. Thus Roth, a praised journalist married to the handsome Friederike Reichler, used to bask in the illusion of having obtained the stability and the happiness humans seek since they first enter the society. Unfortunately, in 1926 Friederike began to show the first symptoms of a mental illness that lead her to folly and, in a few years, to Linz, where she was victim of Nazi’s euthanasia project Aktion T4. Roth entered a period of dire depression: he blamed himself for her sickness, and found the only way out in alcohol. He used to get drunk consuming unmoderated amounts of Pernod, lost his usual brilliancy at work and his financial situation abruptly decayed.
Andreas Kartak, the protagonist of “The legend of the holy drinker”, is Roth fictional alter ego, and shares several features with the writer. Their life goes through an initially easy and successful period, followed by a tragedy in their couple life and by the tragic slip in the abyss of alcoholism, with a particular predilection for Pernod. Andreas is a lost soul and a homeless, recently got out of jail, who benefits from a donation from an old man he meets taking a stroll along the Seine river. He promises to give it back one day, through a donation to the Chapelle of Saint Mary des Batillognes, patron saint of France. Her theology aims to achieve holiness through small daily actions for the love of God and his divine Mercy.
That is the beginning of a series of small miracles for him, such as a job offer, a new meeting with his ex-wife Karoline, a large amount of money found in an old wallet and the meeting of an old friend who became a world-class football player and tries to help Andreas economically. Nevertheless, Andreas always find an excuse to procrastinate the returning of the money, as he prefers to spend in alcohol and in a lifestyle by far superior to the one he had in all the years he spent sleeping under the bridges along the Seine. Victim of bad habits and indifference, he yearns for relief in oblivion and loss of consciousness, throwing himself into the arms of alcohol and women, but he is not able to enjoy them completely: he cannot quench his thirst with the sweet nectar of life. Even his old beloved Karoline looks now like a feeble memory withered by time and decay. “Now he noticed what he did not see yesterday, when he first met her. She got old: pale, swollen, breathing heavily, she slept like a woman who is growing older.”
In the last pages Andreas, destroyed by the abuse of alcohol, is finally able to go to the Chapelle of Saint Mary and to give back the money he owed just before he died, thus departing softly and wishing a soft death to all the drinkers of the world.
“The legend of the holy drinker” is a disillusioned glance over the lack of sense of life of those who give up to anguish, depression and to their inner demons; of those who desperately try to find a way out in their brief moments of dignity and who collapse when put in front of their vices and their frailty. Nevertheless, Andreas has a small revenge on the greyness of his existence by dying softly, keeping his promise and giving a sense to his life, mainly made by long days wasted already at dawn and by long days spent sipping from the neck of a bottle.
The difference between him and Roth is the serenity with which Andreas dies: the writer will die poor and alone in a hospice, tormented by guilt feelings and by the spiral of alcoholism he was never able to get out from. The stairway to heaven walked by bohemians thus is not a walk of purity and abstention form sin, but it becomes an earthlier path, composed by small daily actions and aimed to give a meaning to our existence, which would otherwise be wasted and swallowed by a Baudelaireian feeling of spleen that wants to crush all of us between its spires.