Three quarters of my way into Franz Kafka’s Amerika, I heaved a great sigh and wondered if I really, honestly had to finish this book.
After all, Franz Kafka himself couldn’t bring himself to finish it. So why should I?
Here’s something I didn’t know about Franz Kafka: he died when he was only forty, after contracting tuberculosis. His final letter to his trusted friend, Max Brod, read “Dearest Max, my last request: Everything I leave behind me … in the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters … and so on [is] to be burned unread”.
Amazingly, Max Brod denied Kafka’s final request, and most of Kafka’s work was published after his death. Of Kafka’s works, only The Metamorphosis (about a guy who wakes up to discover he’s turned into a giant cockroach) and a few of his short stories were published in Kafka’s lifetime. His other works were published posthumously, including The Castle (sadly, nothing to do with Michael Caton), The Trial – and Amerika. Or The Man Who Disappeared, as Kafka originally called the novel in his manuscripts.
Okay. Enough information. I’m procrastinating now. Here’s my review…
(or The Man who Disappeared)
by Franz Kafka
As the seventeen-year-old Karl Rossmann, who had been sent to America by his unfortunate parents because a maid had seduced him and had a child by him, sailed slowly into New York harbour, he suddenly saw the Statue of Liberty, which had already been in view for some time, as though in an intenser sunlight. The sword in her hand seemed only just to have been raised aloft, and the unchained winds blew about her form.
– Franz Kafka, Amerika, page 1
Hang on? What? The Statue of Liberty? With a sword? What’s going on?
The first two sentences of Amerika and I’m already scratching my head…
The sword-bearing Statue of Liberty is a sign of what’s to come, as clueless Karl Rossmann stumbles into his new life in a country that seems determined to fight him and everything he stands for – Europe, the old country, tradition, old ways.
Amerika was Kafka’s first attempt at a novel, but he abandoned it, leaving it an unfinished manuscript. The edition I read contains fragments from Kafka’s notes, and a final chapter which it’s believed that Kafka intended as the ending of the book.
It’s a strange feeling, reading something you’re not meant to be reading. You can’t help but wonder what this work could have been, had Kafka completed it.
Amerika is the story of Karl Rossmann, a German boy exiled by his family after impregnating a maid. Not that Karl had much of a say in this – as we find out later, this was more the maid’s doing than Karl’s.
To put it bluntly, Karl is a blithering idiot. He veers wildly between blindly trusting strangers and intense paranoia. There’s something hapless about Karl; a childish innocence. Life is something that happens to Karl. He’s completely passive. But, in spite of his intense ignorance, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for poor Karl.
Trying to describe the plot of Amerika is silly. It’s like trying to tell someone about a dream you had last night. Although it makes perfect sense at the time you experience it, when you try and explain it to someone else, it sounds all garbled and confused. And it’s not really a plot; more of a sequence of strange scenes, with Karl wandering blithely from one bizarre situation to the next.
For example? At the beginning of the book, Karl loses his luggage, then he’s involved in a workplace dispute aboard his ship, meets his long-lost American uncle, wanders around a huge, half-built house in the dark, is once more thrown out of the family, finds his luggage, is homeless, meets a couple of con artists, is employed in a grand hotel, is fired, is wheeling a morbidly obese former opera singer around in a wheelchair…
See, I told you it’d sound silly. Really, the plot of Amerika is a strange, constantly repeating cycle of despair and happiness.
Kafka is an amazing writer. I know this from reading some of his short stories and, of course, The Metamorphosis. That’s why I chose to read this book. But, unfortunately, Amerika isn’t exactly Kafka at his best. At times, it moves so quickly that it leaves the reader feeling dizzy. There’s a lot of speaking, a quagmire of pointless circular conversations that drag the reader down.
And then, there are the POUSes – Paragraphs of Unusual Size. Monstrous paragraphs that go on and on for pages and pages on end. I’m not exaggerating. They’re huge, soul-destroying things. One nearly took off my leg.
But there are moments of promise, however; moments of the typical squeamishness that we’ve come to associate with Kafka. That delightfully menacing first sentence I quoted earlier, for instance. The Statue of Liberty presented with a sword, as if it’s always been that way, like reality, skewed a little. And, really, Karl is a fantastic character. Kafka does well to create a character so incredibly naïve; so completely clueless. But overall, there’s not much of the Kafkaesque about Amerika. Just a string of bizarre situations, strung one after the other.
It’s difficult, reviewing an unfinished book. It’s impossible to know what Amerika could have been, or what it was intended to be. All I can do is to review what’s actually here between the pages.
But unfortunately, what’s on the page isn’t always engaging. So much so that I was sorely tempted to set this book aside. Yes, there are fleeting moments of interest, but they’re over in a moment and Karl is being dragged away on yet another pointless adventure.
Sigh. What might have been…
Official Book to the Future Rating:
Superawesome! – Awesome – Okay – Blah – Superblah!
Should you read it?
Frankly? No. This is not the Kafka you know and love. It could have been, with a little TLC. But it’s not. Amerika has moments of genius – but they’re very few and far between. Unless you’re a Kafka tragic, I’d recommend giving Amerika a great big miss.
And if you’ve never read Kafka…what are you waiting for? Go and buy The Metamorphosis – right freaking now. It’s amazing.
In a word: