“Conversation with Job” — Alfred Döblin

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Conversation with Job, it’s up to you, Job, you don’t want to

After Job had lost everything, everything a man can possibly lose, not more and not less, he lay in the cabbage patch.

‘Job, you’re lying in the cabbage patch, just far enough away from the doghouse for the dog not to bite you. You hear him gnashing his teeth. The dog will bark if you take so much as a single step. If you turn round or make to get up, he will growl, rush at you, rattle his chain, jump out, drool and snap at you.

‘Job, there is your palace, and there are the gardens and fields that once were yours. This watchdog was not even known to you, and this cabbage patch where you have been thrown was not even known to you, any more than the goats they drove past you in the mornings that would take a mouthful of grass as they passed, and grind it between their teeth and fill their cheeks with it. They were yours.

‘Job, you have lost everything. You are allowed to shelter in the barn at night. Everyone is afraid of your contagion. You once rode in splendour over your estates, and people used to flock around you. Now you’ve got the wooden fence in front of you, and you can watch the snails creep up it. You can make a study of the earthworms. Those are the only creatures that aren’t afraid of you.

You hardly ever open your crusty eyes, you bundle of misery, you human swamp.

‘What is the worst torment, Job? The fact that you lost your sons and daughters, that you own nothing, that you’re cold at night, the boils on your throat, on your nose? Tell, Job.’

‘Who’s asking?’

‘I’m just a voice.’

A voice comes out of a throat.’

‘You mean I must be a human being.’

‘Yes, and therefore I don’t want to see you. Go away.’

‘I’m just a voice, Job, open your eyes as far as you can, and then you’ll see me.’

‘I’m raving. My head, my brains, now I’m being driven mad, now they’re taking my thoughts away from me.’

‘And if they were, would that matter?’

‘I don’t want them to.’

‘Even though you’re suffering so much, and suffering so much by your thoughts, you still don’t want to lose them?’

‘Don’t ask. Go away.’

‘But I’m not taking anything. I just want to know which torment is the worst.’

‘That’s nobody’s business.’

‘You mean, nobody but you?’

‘Yes. Yes. Certainly not yours!”

The dog barks, growls, snaps at the air. The voice returns after a while:

‘Is it your sons you are lamenting over?’

‘No one need pray for me when I’m dead. I’m poison to the earth. When I am gone, just spit. Forget Job.’

‘And your daughters?’

‘My daughters. Ah. They’re dead too. They’re fine. They were pictures of women. They would have given me grandchildren, and they were dashed from me. One after the other was dashed to the ground, as though God had taken her by the hair, and lifted her up and thrown her to the ground, broken.’

‘Job, you can’t open your eyes, they are gummed shut. You are lamenting because you are in the cabbage patch, and the doghouse is the least thing that is yours, that and your disease.’

‘The voice, you voice, whosesoever voice you are, and wherever you are hiding.’

‘I don’t know why you’re lamenting.’

‘Oh. Oh.’

‘You groan, and you don’t know either, Job.’

‘No, I have—’

‘You have?’

‘I have no strength. That’s it.’

‘So you’d like strength.’

‘No strength with which to hope or wish. I have no teeth. I am soft, I feel ashamed.’

‘So you say’

‘Yes, you must know. That’s the worst.’

‘So it’s already written on my brow. That’s what a rag I am.’

‘That’s what is causing you the most suffering, Job. You would like not to be weak, you would like to resist, or to be wholly riddled, your brains gone, your thoughts gone, just an animal. Make a wish.’

‘You’ve asked me so many things, voice, I think you must be allowed to ask. Heal me. If you can. Whether your name is Satan or God or angel or man, heal me.’

‘Will you accept healing from anyone?’

‘Heal me.’

‘Job, think carefully. You can’t see me. If you open your eyes, perhaps you will be shocked to see me. Perhaps I will charge a great and terrible price.’

‘All will be seen. You speak like someone who is serious.’

‘What if I am Satan or the Evil One?’

‘Heal me.’

‘I am Satan.’

‘Heal me.’

The voice withdrew, became weaker and ever weaker. The dog barked. Job listened fearfully: he is gone, I must be healed, or I must die. He squawked. A terrible night broke in. The voice came back once more:

“And if I am Satan, how will you deal with me?’

Job screamed: ‘You will not heal me. No one will help me, not God, not Satan, and no angel, and no human.’

‘And you yourself?’

‘What about me?’

‘You won’t.’

‘What.’

‘Who can help you when you don’t want to help yourself?’

‘No, no,’ burbled Job.

The voice in front of him: ‘God and Satan, angels and humans, all want to help you, but you will not help yourself – God out of love, Satan so as to control you later, the angels and men because they are helpers of God and Satan, but you don’t want to.’

‘No, no,’ burbled Job, and screamed, and flung himself to the ground.

He screamed all night long. The voice called uninterruptedly: ‘God and Satan, angels and men, all will help you, but you will not help yourself.’ Job uninterruptedly: ‘No, no.’ He tried to stifle the voice, it grew louder and ever louder, it was always a degree ahead of him. All night long. Towards morning, Job fell on his face.

Job lay there silent.

That day the first of his boils healed.


From Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin. English translation by Michael Hoffmann. (NRYB trade paperback, 2018).

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