09 December 2018

Kafka's labyrinths

Amerika: The Missing Person by Franz Kafka, translated by Mark Harman (Schocken Books, 2008)

Kafka's comic novels could hardly be called social realist ones, but I could detect a sympathetic attitude for subaltern-like characters. (And here I used the term "subaltern" loosely; Kafka's posthumous novels were hardly postcolonial). The novels operated within a psychological space of helplessness and entropy, hence they seemed to unravel in a nightmare landscape. Gregor Samsa awoke from a listless dream to find himself transformed into a monstrous insect. Here, Karl Rossmann arrived in America greeted by a transformed landmark, a signal that we were about to enter a weird reality.

As he entered New York Harbor on the now slow-moving ship, Karl Rossmann, a seventeen-year-old youth who had been sent to America by his poor parents because a servant girl had seduced him and borne a child by him, saw the Statue of Liberty, which he had been observing for some time, as if in a sudden burst of sunlight. The arm with the sword now reached aloft, and about her figure blew the free winds.


The scenes that followed were classic comedy from the master of indirection and misdirection. Karl was fetched by his uncle in the ship after running into misadventures with "the stoker" and another passenger to whom he foolishly entrusted his trunk. He was practically adopted by his uncle, a very wealthy businessman and politician. However, for flimsy reasons, his uncle disowned him and left him to his own devices. With this great misfortune and the succeeding hysterical scenes that followed, it was not farfetched to say that he was prejudged and found guilty of an unspecified crime, just like Josef K in The Trial, even before he set foot in America.

Now it was simply a matter of finding one's way back to the dining room, where in the initial confusion he had probably misplaced his hat. Of course, he intended to take along the candle, but even with a little light it was not easy to find one's way about. For instance, he could not tell whether this room was on the same floor as the dining room. On the way over Klara had dragged him, so that he hadn't been able to look around; Mr. Green and the servants carrying the candelabras had also kept him busy, and indeed he wasn't even able to say how many staircases they had passed, one, two, or perhaps even none. If the view from here was any indication, the room was fairly high up, and so he tried to imagine them taking the stairs, but even at the entrance they had had to go up several stairs, so why couldn't this side of the house be elevated also? If only there had been a glimmer of light from a door somewhere along the corridor or one could have heard a voice from afar, however faintly!

Confusion and disorientation reigned. Deadlines were missed. Unfortunate delays ensued. A chain of improbable digressions brought one to the brink of laughter. We were in Kafka territory alright. The claustrophobic and pathetic situations Karl found himself in was simultaneously funny and tragic. One had to consider it very funny. Otherwise the anxious reader, in all seriousness, would be frightfully affected by darkness and horror.

Karl, like K. in The Castle, was surrounded by characters who constantly demand for his attention or who sought him for some use. He was thrown in one absurd situation after another, one set piece of back luck after another, the kind of absurdity and lucklessness that induced one to side-splitting laughter, the only redemptive and bearable reaction, because, certainly, not to laugh and to take the writer seriously was more than tragic. Kazuo Ishiguro, in The Unconsoled, borrowed this almost unbearable absurdity and comedy to great effect.

While Kafka's three unfinished comic novels and fantastical stories like "The Metamorphosis" could be read literally, they most certainly opened up fertile grounds of inquiry for the reader. Translator Mark Harman, in addition to rewriting the German in an agile prose ("agile" being my token adjective for the quality of a translation from a language I do not speak), supplied a preface which provided an overview of Amerika's critical reception, some new background researches on Kafka, and some pathways with which to approach the ideas raised by the novelist. Harman noted how Max Brod's "once widely accepted portrayal of Kafka's works as religious allegories has not aged well". In fact, Jorge Luis Borges, who translated Kafka, considered Kafka's fiction as "a parable or a series of parables whose theme is the moral relation of the individual with God and with his incomprehensible universe". This might be true, but I think that a secular reading of the novelist offered a more robust reading.

Harman also underscored how, among Kafka's novels, Amerika constituted the most overt social criticism. That was obvious given how the major characters in the novel were all immigrants to America, with their countries of origin emphasized for good measure. It was also obvious how social hierarchies and inequalities (between the rich businessmen and the poor working class) were incorporated into the novel and how it eventually focused on Karl's adventures in soliciting menial work. It could even be argued that the novel's central topic was "work" in the same manner K. (a surveyor), Josef K (a banker), and Gregor Samsa (salesman) were partly prosecuted or haunted because of or on account of their work.

In her introduction to Walter Benjamin's Illuminations, Hannah Arendt—the German intellectual philosopher and previous editor of Schocken Books which championed the publication of Kafka's body of work—considered the Czech writer in light of the Jewish question.

No doubt, the Jewish question was of great importance for this generation of Jewish writers and explains much of the personal despair so prominent in nearly everything they wrote. But the most clear-sighted among them were led by their personal conflicts to a much more general and more radical problem, namely, to questioning the relevance of the Western tradition as a whole.

Certainly the Jewish question gave a rich context or background to any reading of Kafka. If one was to believe Arendt, the constricting atmosphere that pervaded European societies at the time, including Kafka's, was hard to ignore. When she wrote about the "most clear-sighted" Jewish writers, Arendt was referring to Kafka and Benjamin, among others. (It would be interesting to look into how Benjamin himself viewed Kafka in the two essays included in Illuminations.) (Extending to later non-Jewish European writers, I suppose this critique of the Western tradition was extended by Thomas Bernhard, W. G. Sebald, and László Krasznahorkai, each in his own revolutionary way)

When she wrote about "questioning the relevance of the Western tradition as a whole", one could recognize how this applies to Kafka's fiction which was a maze of digressions and collapse of meanings. The Western philosophical tradition I would say applied to the liberal capitalist machinery of society: power plays and power structures, labor inequities, economic inequalities, problematic family relations, societal arrangements, slavery and overwork, the deterioration of one's health and well-being. Like Gregor Samsa confined and wasting away in his small room, the sick Robinson (Karl's acquaintance) was visited by a grim self-realization.

Now I've ruined my health for the rest of my life, and what did I have other than my health? If I exert myself ever so slightly, I get a pain there and here. If I were healthy, do you think those boys in the hotel, those grass toads—what else would one call them?—could possibly have defeated me. But no matter what's wrong with me, I won't breathe a word to Delamarche and Brunelda; I'll work as long as possible, and until it's not possible anymore, then I'll lie down and die, and only then, when it's too late, will they see that, though I was sick, I was still working, always working, and that I actually worked myself to death in their service.

Of course the way with which this critique was explored in Kafka was almost invisible mainly because they were covered by comedy and a deceptively artless prose. One could only admit the critique if one interpreted the broad outline of the novels as tracing the plight of the disadvantaged, persecution of the vulnerable and marginalized, racism, the last gasps of a decent person in an inhospitable environment.

He knew that whatever he could say would end up seeming very different from the way it had been intended and that the way they assessed the matter was critical, since it alone would determine the final judgement of good or evil.

The impossibility of comprehension, the inability to fully understand one's state of nature, this was embedded in the work itself. There would always be a gulf between the word ("whatever he could say") and its supposed meaning ("the way it had been intended") which would make the novels seem impervious to criticism and evaluation. And the gatekeepers of power, with "the way they assessed the matter" would always find fault and would render harsh judgement.

Borges called Kafka a "nihilist" whose subject is "the unbearable, tragic solitude of the individual who lacks even the lowliest place in the order of the universe" and whose greatest strength as a writer is "the invention of intolerable situations".

"Well," said Karl, "it won't be that bad"; however, after everything he had heard, he no longer believed in a favorable outcome.

Unfavorable, yes. And we were still laughing.

Quotes from Borges were taken from pieces in Selected Non-Fictions, edited by Eliot Weinberger.

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