No writer was as fierce and gripping in taking up reality and coupling it perfectly with fantasy like Frantz Kafka (1883-1924). Drawing largely from his own life experiences, growing under a heavy handed father Kafka mapped a world of life of isolation and indifference. Imagine life putting an individual in a situation of helplessness that produces a victim that cannot free himself from the bondage created by the society and individuals who might be embodiment of the society’s ideals?
This writer of ample narrative prowess had only a few of his works published during his life time. Some of his biographies said he asked his friend to destroy his scripts after his death. It was only because that wish was not granted to Kafka that the world is benefitting from his rich treatment of complications of life; at individual level.
One of the best works of Kafka is “The Trial” published posthumously in 1925. It is the story of a man who was arrested without any idea of his crime. From the beginning to the end of the novel the reader is left searching elusively for the reason why the main character is prosecuted. Even those assigned to carry out the arrest appeared to be unwary of the reason for their action. The atmosphere is that of tension and perpetual engagement with questions whose answers are not and cannot be immediately clear. This novel gave impetus to the concept of ‘Kakfaesque’ which is concept that aptly captures a situation in which one is suffocated by frivolous rules and bizarre conventions that make one, at best, helpless. The situation create a man who has to thrive in a hopeless situation.
“Metamorphosis” is often referred to as short story or novella. First published in 1915 this story has one of the memorable opening lines, detailing the trials of Gregor Samsa who woke up “…one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed into a monstrous vermin.” Though the people around him were bothered and felt he should be hidden, Samsa himself was comfortable with his ‘new skin.’ Samsa’s family were more bothered and concerned about his ‘strange’ physical look. They give no thought or care about his inner being, his soul and his conscience. Samsa, like other human beings, found himself trapped in a monstrous body. Many are trapped in marriages, relationships, countries, communities or families.
Another famous work of Kafka is “The Castle” whose focus is on bureaucracy and its impact on the society. The people live with the bureaucracies created by the authorities, and often go to the extent of justifying those authoritative acts. The main character’s ordeals symbolically reflect the condition of people who found themselves trapped in a system that should protect them.
“Amerika” (1927) is about the effort of a young man to escape the shame of being seduced by a housemaid. The search for life and meaning often forces people to leave home only to meet more complications at the place where they expected to get something better. In this novel, the man who left home to get another go at life is considered as the ‘the man who disappeared’ by his family and the society. Irony.
Beyond his works, Kafka stands for humanity; the conflicts and complications of life. Life is a perpetual trial for his characters. Kafka himself is an embodiment of his works. Up to the time he died many of his works were uncompleted. There is meaning in this aspect of Kafka – a meaning that can be widened to reflect the imperfection of human beings and the void that exists in the life of almost every human being. In Samsa we met a man who was not interested in his job, but still kept on with it. Existentialism in all its forms permeate the works of Kafka.
Kafka was obsessed with existence focusing on those inner pains of individuals the society cannot see or recognize. His sentences flow with the suspense transported to the end of a paragraph with a punch.
Life has never been a straightforward game and for writers like Kafka, capturing this through narratives loaded with meaning helps humanity in coming to terms with itself. Why would an individual be arrested for nothing? How can those making the arrest also be ignorant or completely unwary of the reasons behind their actions? Why do people often find themselves in situations they don’t like and can’t do anything about? Why is bureaucracy created by authorities and supported by the society making simple things difficult; destroying dreams and often lives? All of Kafka’s works were about interrogating life and the meaninglessness of life. The search for the truth, futile as it is, exposes the limits of man and the imperfect our world. We live with many things that don’t make sense at all – and life goes on.
Kafka was a huge influence on Gabriel Garcia Marquez and many other writers and artists. His clinical interrogation of existence is still being explored by philosophers. Writers choose what to focus on, often influenced by their background or experiences – or both. But Kafka is the champion of focusing the important and immediate; human beings and the ‘existential quandary.’