.... You can't catch me! I'm the gingerbread man!"
Franz Tunda, the principal figure in "Flucht ohne Ende", is a sort of gingerbread man, kneaded into shape more by events than by his own will. He's a skilled escapist, yet he's captured - literally - in the first sentence of the novella; a lieutenant in the Austrian army of WW1, he becomes a prisoner in pre-revolutionary Russia. He escapes from the prison camp - immediately, in the third sentence! - and finds asylum with a hermit woodcutter/huntsman in Siberia. Assuming his protector's family name, he runs again, having learned months after the fact that the war is over. But he's caught again, first by Whites and then by Reds, well short of home in Austria. This time he's captured emotionally as well, falling in love with his captor, the Revolutionary Woman. Kneaded into plausible Communist cookie-shape by his Pasionaria, he spends the next several years slipping away from various configurations of his identity in the New Utopia of Communism, and then runs full speed frantically out of Russia toward ....
Toward what is always the question. Does the Gingerbread Boy ever have an idea of where his flight will take him? And what if he does escape? Where will he be then?
Franz Tunda escapes to Western Europe - Germany and France - and to "modernity". In both, he is utterly superfluous. The resourceful escape artist has no resources for staying put. Without work, without money, without any useful identity except his knack for expanding upon his adventures in Siberia, he is the prototypical random particle in the cloud chamber of modern times. The book will end with him standing at a corner in Paris, with no sense of what direction to flee toward next. And that's where author Joseph Roth finds him.
"Flight Without End" breaks (somewhat awkwardly) into two sections, composed in two disparate stylistic languages. The first half, narrating Tunda's life from his capture by the Russians to his homecoming to Austria, is written in Roth's most precise, short-sentence simplicity, as 'clean' of ornamentation as prose can be. Once Tunda reaches the West and Modernity, the tone and the syntax change radically. The author introduces himself in the story. There are purported quotes from Tunda's own journal and letters. The sentences become longer, much longer, and Tunda is turned inside out. From a man of action - flight! - he becomes a man of passive observation, and what he observes perplexes him into helplessness. His observations (presumably reflecting Roth's) become bitterly satirical. Everything he has fled toward seems superficial, artificial, empty. He is superfluous, as he knows, because everything is superfluous in such a world, where filling one's accepted role is the only goal. Roth's humor is killingly funny, here and in other books, but the issue is often whom to kill.
Roth discovers his character Tunda more than once. It seems to be implied that they were pre-war friends. Then, after he reaches the West, Tunda seeks Roth's help by letter and Roth reconnects Tunda to his brother in Germany. Finally, as mentioned above, Roth 'meets' Tunda on the street - by chance? - in Paris. Here's the text of Roth's Foreword from the 1927 Paris edition of Flucht ohne Ende:
""In what follows I tell the story of my friend, comrade and spiritual associate, Franz Tunda. I follow in part his notes, in part his narrative. I have invented nothing, made up nothing. The question of poetic invention is no longer relevant, Observed fact is all that counts.""
How seriously can we take that declaration? Roth is presenting us with the apparatus of a factual account, not a fiction, but I as a reader can't help suspecting a trick. Was "Franz Tunda" in a normal sense a real person? Much of his reported life seems parallel to Roth's, including especially his stateless arrival in Paris. There's no consistent distinction, in the book, between the voices of the author and the protagonist; it's impossible to distinguish between Tunda's sardonic satires of German/French society and Roth's own. Perhaps some Roth scholar, reading this review, will know whether or not the tale of Franz Tunda is straightforward non-fiction or disingenuous dissimilation. Until I learn otherwise, I'm presuming the latter, with the implication that Franz Tunda is a self-portrait, that it was Joseph Roth who encountered himself standing superfluously on that corner in Paris.
A proper literary critic would no doubt judge this book to be awkward in construction, perhaps hastily written, unsatisfactory in terms of the Aristotelian unities. Yeah, that's about right. It's not as well crafted as Roth's best novellas --"Job" or "The Rebellion" for instance -- but it's devastating in its way, as a portrayal of the state of society in Europe in the 1920s, and as a confession of the hopelessness of the individual in the Mass Culture of the modern world.