Passengers with Heavy Loads

Joseph Roth, translated from the German by Michael Hofmann

The following was published in 1923 in the Berliner Börsen-Courier, for which, among many other papers, Joseph Roth was a correspondent in the years before he published The Radetzky March.

Passengers with heavy loads take their place in the very last cars of our endless trains, alongside “Passengers with Dogs” and “War Invalids.” The last car is the one that rattles around the most; its doors close badly, and its windows are not sealed, and are sometimes broken and stuffed with brown paper.

It’s not chance but destiny that makes a person into a passenger with heavy baggage. War invalids were made by exploding shells, whose destructive effect was not calculation but such infinite randomness that it was bound to be destructive. To take a dog with us or not is an expression of personal freedom. But being a passenger with heavy baggage is a full-time occupation. Even without a load, he would still be a passenger with heavy baggage. He belongs to a particular type of human being—and the sign on the car window is less a piece of railway terminology than a philosophical definition.

Baggage cars are filled with a kind of dense atmosphere you could cut maybe with a saw, a freak of nature, a kind of gas in a state of aggregation. It smells of cold pipe tobacco, damp wood, the cadavers of leaves, and the humus of autumn forests. What causes the smell are the bundles of wood belonging to the occupants, who have come straight from the forests, having escaped the shotguns of enthusiastic huntsmen, with the damp chill of the earth in their bones and on their boot soles. They are encrusted with green moss, as if they were pieces of old masonry. Their hands are cracked, their old fingers gouty and deformed, resembling peculiar gnarled roots. A few leaves have caught in the thin hair of an old woman—a funeral wreath of the cheapest kind. Swallows could make nests for themselves in the tangled beards of the old men….

Passengers with heavy baggage don’t set down their forests when they themselves sit down. Having to pick up one’s load again after a half-hour in which one’s spine has felt free for all eternity seems to weigh heavier than an entire pine forest. I know that with us soldiers, when a few minutes’ rest beckoned after hours of marching, we didn’t undo our packs but continued to drag them with us like a horribly loyal misfortune,* or a foe to whom we were bound in an eternal alliance. That’s how these old bundle carriers sit, not so much passengers with heavy baggage, as heavy baggage with passengers. And that also goes to demonstrate the fatefulness of carrying loads, that it’s a condition rather than an activity. And what do the forest people talk about? They speak in half-sentences and stunted sounds. They keep silent not from wisdom but from poverty. They reply hesitantly, because their brains work slowly, forming thoughts only gradually,…

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