Franz Kafka has been on my TBR list for some time and finally I decided to take the opportunity and read some of his work as part of German Literature Month, an event hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life.
The book I have is an old but well-preserved Romanian translation printed in 1969 with a beautiful sepia color bordering each page so that the words seem encompassed in a sort of frame, a painting without the picture.
There are nine stories, and the first, The Verdict (Das Urteil), pulled me in right away with its beginning – a young man writing a letter to his friend who had gone to Russia years ago where he was supposedly working hard for some business or other. We also find out the young man, Georg Bendemann, lives with his elderly father and is engaged to a girl from a rich family. It’s not until the dialogue between father and son that something begins to feel amiss – it’s like suddenly getting a whiff of an unknown scent coming from a place we can’t pinpoint. It’s unsettling, slightly disturbing, and forced my mind, which until that point had a fairly linear thought process, to take a leap. I felt like I had to take sides – is it the father who has lost his mind or is it the son? Even the last sentence of the story adds more to the uncertainty and I loved that about it.
The Metamorphosis (Die Verwandlung) is my favorite story from the book. I could very well argue that this is a horror story because how can it not be? Can you imagine waking up as a human size bug one morning?
Gregor Samsa’s nightmare begins when he realizes his shocking change just as he wakes up to go to work. The cause of the metamorphosis is never explained but through plenty of detail the reader is introduced to Gregor’s life following this amazing misfortune. Or is it not a misfortune after all? If you have read the story you might think I’m slightly off (or more than slightly) but it is clear the whole family went through a metamorphosis. Perhaps Gregor, as the dutiful son and breadwinner got the short end of the stick; it is however just as captivating to see his family’s reaction and the changes they go through as they adjust to their new life.
Interestingly enough, both The Verdict and The Metamorphosis begin in the morning. I found this clearly defined frame of time to add a realistic tone to the story ahead.
“Bug” may not be the best term to describe Gregor’s transformation. The edition I have refers to it as an “insect-like” creature. We have a specific word for that in Romanian which perfectly fits Kafka’s description.
On a personal note – I’ve had a couple of unfortunate encounters with bugs, the most recent one when I found one in my jacket pocket while taking a stroll through a park, not long after I finished reading this story. Maybe it was a reminder.
In A Country Doctor (Ein Landarzt) the author present us with a moral dilemma told from the point of view of an elderly country doctor who is called away suddenly to the bedside of a patient. An unexpected help presents itself – a man with two horses, ready to replace the doctor’s own horse that had died the night before. The doctor’s housemaid, a young woman named Rosa, helps the man with the horses but it’s clear the man can hardly wait for the doctor to leave so he can abuse the girl. The doctor doesn’t want to leave Rosa behind but somehow the horses take the carriage away before he can get down and he can hear her screams as the man breaks down the door. From this moment on the story takes a fantastical turn – the horses become agents of evil, and the patient, a young boy, is dying of a terrible wound.
Has this been just a wasted call? Did the bell, which rang in the night and whose voice the doctor always obeyed, lead him not to save a life but to lose two? Is this an allegory for something that happens in life? I found myself totally captured by the story and utterly immersed in the doctor’s predicament.
Some of the stories are quite short but not less powerful. Up in the Gallery (Auf der Galerie), which is something that brought to mind an “if – but” story (a term I just came up with), is a two page story that describes a scene at the circus. The urgency of the image presented is not less potent than a story sprawled across a dozen pages. It is the precision of every word and their capability to surge forward that create an emotion which cannot be explained easily. Not by me, at least.
Before the Law (Vor dem Gesetz) is the story of a peasant trying to gain access to the law. The way is barred by a guardian who, every time the peasant tries to go in, comes up with clever excuses to delay him – from warnings to accepting bribes to other ways in which he shows his power. This goes on for years when, at last, the peasant asks the one question which prompts a revealing answer from the guardian. The end is abrupt, and while we don’t find out why the peasant wanted to see justice done, it is, somehow, satisfying.
Eleven Sons (Elf Söhne) is a father’s description of his sons. It’s a case of a man who is never satisfied – one son is clever but not good looking, another is very handsome but lacks courage, yet another is nearly perfect but for the fact that he travels through the world, self sufficient and content, ignoring his father’s wish of starting a family, and the list goes on. Reading this story felt like watching a man who, no matter how many gifts is given in life still finds fault with all of them.
In A Report to an Academy (Ein Bericht für eine Akademie), a man is called to recount his experience as a monkey in front of distinguished members of an unnamed academy. He launches into lengthy descriptions of what he calls “his past life as a monkey”, starting with allowing himself to be captured by people, then talking about how he finally learned to do whatever was necessary to please his captors. I find this story more than slightly ironic, as if Kafka was poking fun at the origins of the human species by claiming the man’s life as a monkey ended but five years prior to this confession. Also, the amount of detail makes it hard not to believe the man – the story seems entirely plausible.
At first glance, In The Penal Colony (In der Strafkolonie) is a story of an execution. A famous explorer is invited to witness the execution of a man whose offense is punished by death. But beneath this obvious story there’s another layer, deeper and even more troubling than seeing a man being crushed to death by a man-made machine. It’s the story of a belief, an absurd belief, and a man willing to go to great length to show his devotion to it. Aside from The Metamorphosis, this was the most disturbing story in this collection because there was no way I could have guessed the horrible turn it took. And I could also argue that this one as well is a great horror story.
A Hunger Artist (Ein Hungerkünstler) is the story of a man who fasts for days while being exhibited like some kind of freak in a cage, while people come to watch him. The fasting goes on for forty days, a period of time set by his manager as being the maximum time people will take an interest in this curious form of art. Of course this brings to mind the famous “15 minutes of fame” so prevalent these days. This could also be interpreted as a man choosing to display himself in front of others, risking their admiration, distrust and revulsion. It could also be a way of trying to get their attention by choosing to stand out from their midst, a person who’s doing something others don’t. I find the title very apt – aren’t many artists after all courageous people who are willing to brave people’s displeasure by displaying their art?
I loved my first encounter with Kafka. He scared, delighted, and surprised me. He’s fascinating, bold, and his attention to detail is worthy of the highest praise. I didn’t know what to expect from his writing and I confess to reading next to nothing about his books because I like to start on a new author with a blank slate and form my opinion of them with as little influence as possible. I will, however, read more of his work in the future, although I confess I’m a little uneasy (but also delighted and fascinated) by the prospect.
My rating: 5/5 stars
Read from September 29 to October 06, 2015