“My intention was . . . to write a Dickens novel, enriched by the sharper lights which I took from our modern times, and by the pallid ones I would have found in my own interior.”
It is rarely my choice to read Franz Kafka all the way through. Which is to say, I frequently express the intention of reading Kafka, and I read parts of his writings, but I tend to stumble upon reading any work of his in its entirety. Amerika: or, The Missing Person (1927) was no exception – choosing it as my third read for the Turn of the Century Salon was a spontaneous decision, especially since I had previously determined not to read it in any case (I had very low expectations for a Kafka novel set in the U.S., rather than in Europe).
For this and many other reasons, irony is a good adjective to describe Amerika and Kafka in general. To name one example – could anything be more ironic than Kafka writing a novel on a country he never visited? But Kafka is Kafka, and he is one of the few who can do that and get away with it. By some extraordinary talent – seemingly part insight and part intuition – Kafka paints a chic, rugged, ironic New York City, just after the turn of the century, with a timid self-confidence that is quite convincing. Like Dickens’s America in Martin Chuzzlewit, Kafka’s America is a land of as much disappointment as fulfillment, and the influence of Europe is not so distant as it first appears.
We are introduced to Karl Rossmann, packed off to America by his parents that did not want to pay support for his child. By chance, Karl runs into his wealthy uncle and an instant step up the social ladder, but this is not to be for long. He eventually finds himself on the hunt for a job, with the added disadvantage of his youthful age and lack of experience. If that weren’t enough, despite his hard work and good intentions Karl earns the ill will and grudge of a host of his superiors, placing him perilously close to the wrong side of the law.
That Amerika lacked some of the Kafkaesque magic of his European novels did not surprise me. What did (more pleasantly) surprise me was the overall lighthearted tone of the book, at least in relation to The Trial or The Metamorphosis. One of the reasons I find Kafka worth reading is his unique approach to dark themes, but Amerika was in this sense less remote and more human. The relationship between Karl and his parents, and between Karl and Therese, was quite likely the first positive portrayal of an interpersonal relationship by Kafka I’ve read, and subsequently those were a couple of my favorite parts. My other favorite scene was the conversation between Karl and the student who works by day and studies by night (“Oh, as for sleeping!” said the student, “I shall sleep once I’m finished with my studies. As for now, I just drink black coffee . . . where would I be without it.”)
Karl is, indeed, a somewhat Dickensian hero, and though as is typical he appears to be based on the author, he is one of Kafka’s more likeable protagonists. Wikipedia describes Karl as having been “seduced” by a housemaid, but as it is actually described, it sounds like he was a naive fifteen year-old assaulted by an almost middle-aged woman. His prospective career as an engineer being over, he has to start all over again in America; yet everywhere he turns, he is harassed and swindled by obnoxious, domineering people. His hard work and best plans rarely pay off. Unlike “K.” from The Trial or The Castle, Karl does try his best to be successful, and I actually felt kind of bad for him.
The translation I read is the 2008 translation by Mark Harman. It seemed good to me. I was particularly glad to see the conversation paragraphs (no paragraph breaks between characters’ lines) preserved; at first it’s a pain to read, but it’s classic Kafka and essential to his style. Something important to note that the book was left unfinished at the time of his death, so the story ends abruptly. There is some risqué behavior by various characters, so as usual with Kafka, I give this an older readers (17+) rating.
4 out of 5 stars for Amerika.