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Oh, this Kafkaesque world between despair and hope!

Oh, this Kafkaesque world between despair and hope!

Kafka’s narrative is located where the experience of alienation, the power of words, and the mind’s hazy wealth of imagery intersect, which is why Kafka’s greatness endures.

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Last Updated : 27 April 2024, 20:25 IST
Last Updated : 27 April 2024, 20:25 IST
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“There is only a spiritual world; what we call the physical world is the evil in the spiritual one.” That was the Czech-Jewish writer Franz Kafka. The subject of his writing was the individual, one’s sense of ennui, and how one relates to the worlds that surround and engage us. W H Auden described Kafka as the Dante of the twentieth century. When you read him in the twenty-first century, Kafka does seem to possess a curious yet indisputable spiritual authority; though he denied that he possessed wisdom or religious insight. Nevertheless, Kafka symbolises great originality. Nothing explicable happens in a story or novel by Kafka. English dictionaries have included the word ‘Kafkaesque” that describes surreal distortion and impending danger. Yet it is not this, but the extraordinary authenticity of his writing that illuminates Kafka’s true genius, and manifests in a myriad of short stories, fragments and, above all, his parables.

Franz Kafka was born in Prague in July 1883. He chose to study law, though he had little interest in the subject, simply because he believed it would distract him least from his “one desire and one calling, which is literature.” At 25, he became an officer of the Workman’s Accident Insurance Institute of Prague; nine years later, upon his suddenly falling ill with tuberculosis, he was given a leave of absence, and shortly thereafter retired. He died of tuberculosis at 41, on June 3, 1924.

The literature that Kafka committed to publication during his lifetime best epitomises the central aspect of modern-day ennui: a sensation of anxiety whose centre cannot be located and therefore cannot be placated; and a sense of an infinite difficulty within things that one has to deal with in everyday life. The Metamorphosis, a short story that is a mere 50-pages long, first published in 1915, is an excellent example. In this truly original case, this dreadful quality is mixed with immense tenderness, and oddly good humour. The opening sentence of The Metamorphosis is one of the most famous in modern fiction: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” Gregor, awaking, sees “numerous legs, which were pitifully thin compared to the rest of his bulk.” Only half awake, Gregor mulls over his extraordinary condition, dwells on his responsibilities as the breadwinner of the family and remembers his duties as a travelling salesperson. Later, relegated by the family to the shadows of a room-turned-storage closet, he responds to violin music and creeps forward, covered with dust and trailing remnants of food, to seek his sister’s love.

The story unfolds with a beautiful naturalness and a classic economy. In the first part, Gregor accepts his incredible transformation stoically, perhaps wishing to bury its causes in his subconscious mind. In the second, Gregor’s isolation and alienation intensify. The reader learns about his relations, past and present with his family; characterised by concealment, mistrust, and exploitation on the father’s part. Gregor’s mother is gentle, selfless, and weak; in the story, she progressively becomes her husband’s appendage. A wonderful moment comes when Gregor, having been painfully striving to achieve human postures, drops to his feet: “Hardly was he down when he experienced for the first time this morning a sense of physical comfort; his legs had firm ground under them; they were completely obedient, as he noted with joy; they even strove to carry him forward in whatever direction he chose; and he was inclined to believe that a final relief from all his sufferings was at hand.” In the third, Gregor, defeated, gives up all hope of returning to the human community.

Kafka’s place in great literature comes from the remarkable likeness of the issues of his art to the issues that the present-day world is composed of -- homelessness, loneliness, and inaccessible apparently arbitrary powers on whose decision everything depends. Kafka is creative in the word’s original sense because he is able to express, with the issues he deals with and his narrative style, what unexpressed conditions beset all in society today. This affirms the importance of his clear-sighted anticipation of our fragmented and contentious world as a whole, as well as his grasp of it in its details.

After reading Kafka, even if we have not understood what he means -- aghast, annoyed, repelled, we put him aside -- how often does it not happen that in certain situations, we exclaim, “Why, this is perfect Kafka! This is just how he described it!” Kafka’s narrative is located where the experience of alienation, the power of words, and the mind’s hazy wealth of imagery intersect, which is why Kafka’s greatness endures. Read The Complete Stories and you begin to see why he remains a great chronicler of the human condition.

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