Modern Fiction: Amerika, by Franz Kafka

Kafka writes dreams, which is why any attempt to describe the plot to a friend is bound to end in bitter frustration. To take a small example from Amerika: the hero, Karl Rossmann, has been invited to the country estate of a friend of his uncle’s, named Pollunder, so he can meet Mr Pollunder’s daughter, Klara. Karl wants to return to Manhattan. He is instructed to say goodbye to Klara, up in her bedroom. He is disinclined to do this since on their first meeting she overpowered him using some judo technique in her displeasure at his having wanted to see the room where he was to have spent the night. But he goes to say goodbye anyway, and he plays the piano for her. He hears applauding from the next room (via a hidden connecting door) and it turns out to be Mack, a friend of Karl’s, who is then introduced as Klara’s fiancée. Mr Pollunder’s friend, Mr Green, arrives with a letter which he was to give to Karl at the stroke of midnight. The letter is from Karl’s uncle, who announces that in visiting Mr Pollunder Karl has acted against the uncle’s wishes, and, therefore, Karl is disowned and banished forever. Mr Green returns to Karl his original suitcase and umbrella, as well as Karl’s cap, which Mr Green had stolen during dinner.

As far as reportage goes, this is an utter catastrophe. But when you actually read the Amerika, you are immersed in the dream and begin to accept the strange and inexorable march of events as though you yourself are the dreamer. And these events get at deep, hidden truths by some side entrance or hidden alley you never knew was there. Kafka is the ultimate prose poet.

When Kafka succumbed to tuberculosis at age 40 in 1924, he left instructions for his best friend, Max Brod: “Dearest Max, my last request: Everything I leave behind me…in the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters (my own and others’), sketches, and so on, [is] to be burned unread.” Fortunately, though it can’t have been easy, Max Brod ignored Kafka’s instructions. Otherwise, all three of Kafka’s novels – The Trial, The Castle, Amerika – would have been destroyed along with the balance of his short stories.

The writer Richard Howard chose a line from Amerika as an excellent description of the novel itself: “At the end of each flight of stairs, another would begin in a slightly different direction.” A constant, shifting anxiety is always being resolved in the most unusual way – by the introduction of a new and unrelated problem that makes the old one irrelevant.

This artform is unique: there is nothing like a Kafka story, just as there is nothing like a Joseph Cornell box. Cornell is the Kafka of the visual arts, who put dreams in boxes and is the only surrealist who can make pictures of the subconscious. Likewise, Kafka is the only writer who can make a story – a series of images – into a dreaming experience: Raskolnikov’s dreams in Crime and Punishment read like dreams. Kafka reads as though one is actually dreaming.

Intriguingness: 9/10

Prose: 9/10

Depth and beauty: 9/10

Overall Goodness Rating (OGR): 9/10

Amerika: The Man Who Disappeared.  Excellent new translation by Michael Hofmann.  New Directions Publishing Co, 2002, 217 pages.

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