Thursday, March 02, 2006

Amerika, by Franz Kafka

Okay, time to be pretentious.

Mr. Sweetie and I had a date last weekend--both of the kidlets were off at slumber parties, so we did something grown up and date like--we went to a play.

The Emmy winning regional theater was performing their adaptation of Amerika--a work I knew nothing about. I had read several Kafka short stories, and the play had received a number of positive reviews, so we went.

Well--I didn't understand much, and found myself enjoying it less and less. Sure, Kafka is bleak and depressing, but the reviews had promised it would be funny! But it wasn't--at least not funny enough to overcome the bleak and depressing parts.

Well, I refuse to be defeated by a mere play! So, I got home and Googled Kafka. More interesting than the analysis of Amerika were the biographical facts. Kafka was the son of a domineering father and (apparently) passive mother, who never truly separated from his parents. While he took a law degree and began his career, by his mid-40s he had contracted tuberculosis which forced him to retire and to make do on money her received from his parents.

In the light of this, Kafka's writings make much more sense to me. Amerika is a surrealistic story about a young boy sent packing from his home after he was seduced by a much older housemaid. He is sent to Amerika, a place that Kafka never went--and despite making every effort, he is systematically misunderstood, abandoned, stripped of his possessions and clothing. After each episode, he is left with less than he started with, and his spiral is inexorably downward.

I have not had much exposure to people from abusive backgrounds, but what little I have has convinced me that Kafka's work is a working out of his relationship with his father--trying to do the right thing, yet always, inevitably, being wrong. Kafka's characters seek validation and acknowledgement from authorities who refuse to be placated. Each attempt to win love and support from an abusive parent leaves the child with fewer emotional resources and binds him closer to the parent.

Kafka's work resonates for me with this theme. In The Trial, Josef K is arrested and put on trial, but he never is able to understand what it is he did. The charges are never explained, only punishment is meted out. In Metamorphsis, Gregor Samsa awakes to find himself a cockroach. The transformation is never explained, only the consequences. He is locked into his room, disowned by his family. Eventually Gregor's father is so disgusted by this giant cockroach that he throws an apple core, which lands on the insect's back. Gregor has no way to remove it, and no one will come to his aid. Eventually--through no fault of his own, the apple rots and poisons him, so he dies.

Such lonliness--such isolation! Kafka wrote most of his works before World War I, and he died before World War II, but somehow I associated his writings with the paranoia of Stalinist communism. Certainly, The Trial smacks of the show trials and disappearances of mid-20th century Eastern Europe. But I think that puts too much political significance to something that is more easily understood as a response to Kafka's personal life. As the child of a domineering father, Kafka struggled with the injustice of being punished for crimes that he had not committed, but was unable to defend himself.

I am certain that there are many sophisticated analyses of Kafka as a political writer, and I don't wish to seem ignorant of those aspects. However, for me, the political aspects of Kafka come out of the personal, and I find myself a more sympathetic audience for his works as a result.