Sunday, 8 December 2013

Epilogue #3

Amerika: The Man Who Disappeared
Franz Kafka

Before I started reading from the compilation of Franz Kafka's three (unfortunately all unfinished) novels, Amerika was the one I had the least knowledge of. Little bits of information that I gained from the acclaimed literary journal Wikipedia had formed some expectations in my mind -- the description of the novel as more realistic and humorous in tone and the stated influence of Charles Dickens had me expecting something slightly different to what we may traditionally think of Kafka-esque.

As it happened, I was right in some ways and wrong in others. Though Amerika is less surrealist / absurdist in tone to some of Kafka's other works and is, in a way, more overt in its social commentary, there's still a lot about it that is unmistakeably from the mind of the Franz Kafka we all know, love, and credit for our profound feelings of anxiety about the contemporary, post-Twentieth Century age. His representation of the real nation of America, for example, is noticeably expressionistic rather than deliberately accurate in a realist sense (famously, Kafka never visited America in his lifetime, basing his novel largely on acquaintance's accounts and books about travel): it is presented as a sort of exaggeration of America in many ways -- sprawling, relentlessly fast-paced, modern and highly industrialised, bureaucratic, capitalist, and rife with social injustice.

From the very first chapter (which is also, under the name of 'The Stoker' published as a short story in many collections of Kafka's fiction) we are introduced to this portrayal of America -- the first sight of protagonist Karl Rossmann's new life in America is the Statue of Liberty holding a sword (a factual error viewed by many as deliberate symbolism), and as this first chapter develops, the reader - without even being taken off of the boat that Karl comes in on - gains a small, yet highly detailed (and, in some ways, foreshadowing) glimpse of America, its brutally hierarchical nature, and the simultaneous wealth of fascinating opportunities and terrifying perils that this nation has to offer to Kafka's protagonist.

As with The Trial, the ending of Amerika is of particular note. Once again, the novel's ending is a fragment chronologically removed from the previous chapter -- this is particularly noticeable in Rossmann's delight at re-meeting a character that was never present in the completed sections of Amerika -- and, again like The Trial, this lends an even stronger Kafka-esque sense of dreamlike strangeness and sinister surrealism to what would already have been a dreamy, strange, sinister, and surreal closing chapter. Though, in many ways, detached from the rest of the novel; I nonetheless felt that this ending fragment did serve as a very fitting conclusion to the novel, especially as I read its blend of optimism and off-kilter strangeness as a sort of warped mirror of the novel's opening chapter's curious blend of optimism and melancholy bleakness; raising the interesting closing question as to whether this new beginning will just end up like Rossmann's other less well-fated 'new beginnings' during his time in America.

Although Amerika isn't considered to be as influential or canonical as works like 'Metamorphosis' or The Trial, its nonetheless another fascinating, if tragically unfinished, novel from a fascinating, unique writer; and, with its social commentary and questioning of aspirational, individualistic American values and of the idea of 'the American Dream', undoubtedly is a novel that invites comparison with a multitude of later more widely-acclaimed works of fiction that have trodden that ever-fertile thematic ground.

Expect a final Kafka Epilogue on The Castle soon, once I've read that (which I'll likely get to after reading Eleanor Catton's The Rehearsal).

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