September 26, 2015

Ang Metamorposis


Ang Metamorposis by Franz Kafka, tr. Joselito D. Delos Reyes (Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino, 2015)



It was well and good that I finished reading The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels right after Franz Kafka's story of an ordinary man's transformation into a monstrous insect. A specter of class antagonism haunted the story of Gregor Samsa's unfortunate situation. That specter was mostly in the background, but it was as palpable as the powerful, omnipotent, and omnipresent reach of an absentee landlord. The tension was there from the first page, when Gregor was without warning rendered into a terrifying living thing, impotent and marginalized and hideous. His struggle against irrelevancy and uselessness in a capitalist society began.

Nang magising isang umaga mula sa isang masamâng panaginip, natuklasan ni Gregor Samsa sa kama ang sariling isa nang kahindik-hindik na insekto. Nakatihaya siya sa matigas at tíla baluting likod, at sa bahagyang pag-angat ng ulo ay natatanaw nya ang malakupula't kayumangging tiyan na nahahati sa matitigas na arkong tumutumbok sa magkabilâng gilid ng katawan; ang katawang iyon ay hindi halos matakluban ng kubrekama na sa anumang sandali, maaaring dumausdos at tuluyang malaglag. Ang kaniyang binti, na kahambal-hambal at lubhang maninipis kung ihahambing sa kabuuan ng kaniyang katawan, ay sumisikad-sikad nang walang kalaban-laban hábang pinagmamasdan niya.

[One morning, upon awakening from agitated dreams, Gregor Samsa found himself, in his bed, transformed into a monstrous vermin. He lay on his hard, armorlike back, and when lifting his head slightly, he could view his brown, vaulted belly partitioned by arching ridges, while on top of it, the blanket, about to slide off altogether, could barely hold. His many legs, wretchedly thin compared with his overall girth, danced helplessly before his eyes.]*

I was reading the recent translation of the story into Filipino by Joselito D. Delos Reyes, part of the new Aklat ng Bayan (Book of the Nation)** series of Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino. The choice and arrangement of the translated words in this paragraph alone (kahindik-hindik; malakupula; kahambal-hambal) was so chilling it was as if from the outset Gregor had no chance at all to survive this struggle. The choice of the word malakupula (like a cupola) in "malakupula't kayumangging tiyan" for "brown, vaulted belly" was a particularly grisly description.

He never heard the alarm clock. (A missed appointment to attend work, just like K. and Josef K. missed theirs every step of the way.) Let us just say that the Kafkaesque adhered to Murphy's law. Gregor emphasized that it was not a dream (Hindi iyon panaginip.). Proof of which was the presence of a magazine cutout he recently made. It was a nightmarish reality every person never dreamed of.

We never did encounter Gregor's big boss in the story, the absentee landlord, the owner of the company where he worked as a travelling salesman of textiles. But after only an hour of being late for work, he was immediately visited by the officer manager, the chief overseer of the company, to specifically remind him of the temporary nature of his tenure in the company ("tandaan mong hindi ganoong katatag ang posisyon mo sa kompanya"). That he was at the mercy of being fired with just one day of being absent without official leave. The company was bent on exploiting the labor force from the likes of Gregor to earn its profits and more capital.

Because he was sick, he was no longer (viewed as) human. Hindi iyon boses ng tao, observed the chief upon hearing Gregor who barricaded himself in the room. Even his cough was described as inhuman: maging tunog ng ubong ito ay maaaring hindi tulad ng sa tao.

Kafka's exaggerated realism was on point. As in his full-length novels, Ang Metamorposis deals with the struggle of ordinary workers ("paid wage-labourers" in The Communist Manifesto***) against the mental and physical exploitation by their insensitive and inhuman society.

At alam ninyo rin, ser, na ang ahente, na halos buong taóng hindi makikita sa opisina, ay madaling nabibiktima ng mga tsismis, kamalasan, at daing at sumbong na walang kamalay-malay. Malaláman lang niya ito kung nakabalik na siya mula sa isang nakapapagod na paglalakbay at doo'y tuwirang maghihirap mula sa nga parusa na hindi man lang niya natutukoy kung ano ang orihinal na dahilan.

[You also know very well that a traveling salesman, being away from the office most of the year, can so easily fall victim to gossip, coincidences, and unwarranted complaints, and he cannot possibly defend himself since he almost never finds out about them, except perhaps when he returns from a trip, exhausted, and personally suffers their awful consequences at home without fathoming their inscrutable causes.]

This almost revealed the mystery surrounding Gregor's metamorphosis, his disintegration into something hardly human after being over-exploited by the labor machine. The basic framework of Kafka's 'critique' of modern society was this disintegration of social and societal meaning. In Marx and Engels, "[the bourgeoisie] has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal rites that bound man to his 'natural superiors', and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked, self-interest, than callous 'cash payment'." Gregor's entreaties fell on deaf ears.

Gregor was the model employee; for many years never had he been absent in work for a single day. The powers that be would not take that into consideration. Gregor's life force must be squeezed out of him to feed the market economy. The common worker became an insect in the colony of capitalist economy. The queen bee needed to be served. The individual was reduced into the form of something like an animal if only to satisfy the appetite of the system.

Nang mga panahong iyon, ang tanging kagustuhan ni Gregor ay gawin ang lahat ng makakaya para matulungan ang pamilya na makalimutan, sa lalo at madaling panahon, ang kasawiang dinanas ng negosyo at maisalba silá mula sa pagkakasadlak sa kawalang pag-asa. Mula noon ay pinaigting na ni Gregor ang pagtratrabaho; mula sa pagiging isang simpleng klerk, halos gabi-gabi na siyang naging isang ahente kung saan tiyak na mas malaki ang kita. Ang mga pagpupursigi at pagsusumikap na iyon ay kagyat nasuklian ng malaking salaping kaniyang naiuuwi sa manghang-mangha at tuwang-tuwang pamilya.

[Gregor's sole concern at that time had been to do whatever he could to make the family forget as quickly as possible the business catastrophe that had plunged them all into utter despair. And so he had thrown himself into his job with tremendous fervor, working his way up, almost overnight, from minor clerk to traveling salesman, who, naturally, had an altogether different earning potential and whose professional triumphs were instantly translated, by way of commissions, into cash, which could be placed on the table at home for the astonished and delighted family.]

Gregor's family was in debt to the very manager he was slaving for. His parents were now in advance age. As a man in his prime, he took the cudgels to be the breadwinner and fend off for the family.

"In proportion as the bourgeoisie, i.e., capital, is developed," Marx and Engels wrote, "in the same proportion is the proletariat, the modern working class, developed – a class of labourers, who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labour increases capital. These labourers, who must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity, like every other article of commerce, and are consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market."

"Not only are they slaves of the bourgeois class, and of the bourgeois State," Marx and Engels added. "They are daily and hourly enslaved by the machine, by the overlooker, and above all, by the individual bourgeois manufacturer himself. The more openly this despotism proclaims gain to be its end and aim, the more petty, the more hateful and the more embittering it is."

For Marx and Engels, the bourgeoisie is unfit to rule society because "it is incompetent to assure an existence to its slave within his slavery, because it cannot help letting him sink into such a state [e.g., the insect-like existence of the transformed Gregor], that it has to feed him, instead of being fed by him." Gregor was allowed to live only as long as the ruling class requires it, as long as he increases the capital. By being destitute, weak, and unproductive, he became an outcast in the eyes of the bourgeois society where (Marx and Engels again) "the living person is dependent and has no individuality". Gregor must die because he was no longer a worker who earns (an article of commerce and instrument of labour) but a burden to society. Gregor was no longer marketable.

The family (mother, father, daughter) was forced to work as their financial status became more dire. They let go of the household help and accepted tenants to the house to augment their much reduced income due to Gregor's condition. "The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation", wrote Marx and Engels. This reduction of the family relation to money matters was inevitable.

Sa labis na trabaho at pagod na pamilyang ito, sino pa ang magkakaroon ng panahon na bigyang-pansin si Gregor maliban na lang kung lubusang kailangan? Patuloy na lumiliit ang badyet ng bahay; pinaalis na ang serbidora [...] Ginampanan na nila sa abot ng makakaya ang lahat ng utos ng mundo sa mahihirap na tao; ikinukuha ng ama ng almusal ang mga maliliit na kawani ng bángko, iniuukol ng ina ang lakas sa pananahi ng mga damit panloob ng mga estranghero, at pabalik-balik sa kaha ang kapatid para sa mga utos ng mga mámimíli. Kung higit pa doon ang kailangan ay wala na siláng lakas na gumawa pa.

[Who in this overworked and exhausted family had time to look after Gregor any more than was absolutely necessary? The household was reduced further; the maid was now dismissed after all {...} Whatever the world demands of poor people, they carried out to an extreme: the father fetched breakfast for the minor bank tellers, the mother sacrificed herself to [sewing] underwear for strangers, the sister, ordered around by customers, ran back and forth behind the counter. But those were the limits of the family's strength.]

Slowly and gradually, Gregor's family suffered the same working system that reduced the son to a thing of monstrosity. His sister, Greta, who at first religiously cared for him and fed him began to change her attitudes toward him. In the end, Greta passionately and vehemently rejected her brother (Hindi ko tatawaging kapatid ang nilalang na ito, at ang masasabi ko lang: kailangan na nating alisin iyan. ["I will not pronounce my brother's name in front of this monstrosity, and so all I will say is: We must try to get rid of it."]).

After Gregor's demise the family collectively heaved a sigh of relief. They no longer had to care for a useless invalid, an inutile member of the family. They were ready to move on, with hope in their hearts because they were at present fortunate to be "employed".

Hábang maginhawang nakasandal sa kanilang upuan, pinag-usapan nila ang kanilang plano para sa hinaharap, at lumabas, sa málapitáng pagsisiyasat, na hindi na rin iyon masamâ, dahil sa trabahong mayroon silá na bagama't ngayon ay hindi pa nila napag-uusapan, tiyak namang magdadala ng magandang búkas para sa pamilya.

[Leaning back comfortably in their seats, they discussed their future prospects and concluded that, upon closer perusal, these were anything but bad; for while they had never actually asked one another for any details, their jobs were all exceedingly advantageous and also promising.]

This reinforced the mentality of a colonized family within the bourgeois society, by viewing future happiness in terms of the fruits of labor employment. This ironic resolution was heightened in the end when the parents looked at Greta, now in her physical prime, as an article of commerce and instrument of labor, i.e., in terms of her potential contribution to the family coffers through marriage to a good prospective husband and by being paid as wage laborer, in complete opposition to her brother's damaged body.

At, bilang animo'y isang pagpapatibay sa kanila bagong pangarap at matalinong balakin, nang marating ang destinasyon, tumayo ang anak at ipinakita ang magandang hubog ng batang katawan.

[And it was like a confirmation of their new dreams and good intentions that at the end of their ride the daughter was the first to get up, stretching her young body.]

Gregor was bound to fail in this class struggle. As Marx and Engels pointed out: "The first direct attempts of the proletariat to attain its own end, made in times of universal excitement, when feudal society was being overthrown, these attempts necessarily failed, owing to the then undeveloped state of the proletariat, as well as to the absence of the economic conditions for its emancipation."

At Kafka's bidding, in his juncture of history when the proletariat has not yet organized itself and acquired political supremacy and constituted itself as the nation, Gregor was a casualty because of the as yet undeveloped state of the struggle, if he even made any attempt to fight back. If he even could be considered heroic in any sense of that word. The Gregor Samsas of the world had yet to reach their saturation points and fight back. But the economic conditions for the emancipation of slaves are now turning. The frameworks for radical and progressive movements have now been tested. The time is now ripe. GREGOR SAMSAS OF THE WORLD, UNITE!


Read in anticipation of German Literature Month V.


* The English passages quoted are by Joachim Neugroschel, from The Metamorphosis, In the Penal Colony, and Other Stories (Scribner), first published in 1993.

**The Aklat ng Bayan series aims to publish works in Filipino or translations into Filipino of noteworthy texts, including translations of great foreign works of literature.

*** The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, translated by Samuel Moore (Penguin Classics, 2015). Translation first published in 1888.

4 comments:

  1. Yes, a chilling book at times. My read inspired a rather personal review ;)

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  2. Been a long time since I read this. Interesting to get another perspective on it.

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    1. I read it once, in English, with several attempts at re-reading. will likely read it again. this is Kafka in concentrated essence. his vision in the novels in compact form.

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