I have enjoyed several novels set in the Austro-Hungarian Empire back when it was a going concern — especially The Good Soldier Svejk and The Road into the Open. Roth’s classic account of three generations who preserve and serve the Emporer Franz Joseph seems flat in comparison with the others.
In The Good Solider Svejk, Jaroslav Hasek showed us how the Czechs felt about the Empire and its military: unimpressed, mocking of its pretentions, slightly sour overall. In The Road into the Open, Arthur Schnitzler gave us the reactions of the Viennese Jews to their newly-enjoyed freedoms: pleased but suspicious, uneasy, and also slightly sour.
In contrast, the Trottas have diluted their ethnic identity. Once they were Slovenian peasants, but one of their number saved the life of the young Emporer Franz Joseph and thus became “the Hero of Solferino.” The hero is ennobled, given money, and enabled to make a prosperous marriage. His son, in turn, is an official, a bureaucrat wholly devoted to the cause of the emperor, a cause which is in essence the Austrian cause. This matters within the huge, multi-ethnic empire in which the various groups aspire to separate national identities. We sense a looming disaster. When the emperor dies it will be the end of the empire and the end of the Trottas.
The central figure of the story, Carl Joseph Trotta, is the grandson of the Hero of Solferino. As a boy, he hears the playing of the Radetzky March as a call to serve Franz Joseph, to die for him, gloriously if at all possible. Yet, Carl Joseph is weak and unsatisfactory in his own life. He is in the cavalry, but doesn’t like to ride his horse. He drinks to get through each day. He makes love opportunistically but understands nothing about women, young or old. He serves, dutifully according to his lights, but he is the prototypical man who just doesn’t get it. What doesn’t he get? That the entire thing is a sham. When the Hero saw how falsely his deeds were portrayed in a school primer, he protested.
“All historic events,” said the lawyer, “are rewritten for school use. And to my mind this is proper. Children need examples that they can grasp, that sink in. They can find out the real truth later on.”
The Hero was there, and so he knows. The grandson has only heard the story, not the real truth.