Monday, May 23, 2011

Week 19: Metamorphosis and Other Stories, by Franz Kafka

This edition of the Kafka’s short works is comprised of five stories: The Metamorphosis, The Great Wall of China, Investigations of a Dog, In the Penal Colony, The Giant Mole, and The Burrow. This was the first time I had ever read Kafka. Prior to reading this, my understanding of Kafka was limited to a portrait of a sickly man who succumbed at an early age to consumption (I had formerly regarded death by consumption as a sort of early 20th century urban myth). Unfortunately, this initial impression of Kafka, (bolstered by black and white photos I had seen of him looking serious, hair center-parted), permeated my opinion of his stories. For some reason, I couldn’t shake my sense that Kafka was an epic whiner. Kind of like the nerdy kid in school that is always sick and writes stories about how awful life is. This book really just rubbed me the wrong way. It starts with The Metamorphosis, which is one of the most depressing stories I have ever read. For those unfamiliar with the premise, it is the tale of Gregor Samsa, who wakes up one morning to find that he has been inexplicably transformed into a giant insect. The story chronicles the reaction of his family; their disgust intermingles with a desire to take care of Gregor. As time progresses, though, the benevolence dissipates and Gregor’s family regards him merely as a problem. Gregor is aware of all that is going on around him, but he is unable to communicate with his family. The reader starts to ponder the story as a metaphor for the aging or the sick, and the effect that their condition has on their caretakers. It’s brutally sad and it really bothered me. I found it difficult to get through because I felt so badly for Gregor. The rest of the stories are not quite as melancholy: The Great Wall of China is a somewhat boring account of (not surprisingly) The Great Wall of China; Investigations of a Dog is a story told from the perspective of a dog; In the Penal Colony concerns itself with an interesting torture device that carves the skin of inmates; The Giant Mole, about a schoolmaster who tries to expose (again, not surprisingly) a giant mole that lives in a nearby village; and The Burrow, which is told from the perspective of a mole-like creature (perhaps the same mole!?) that digs tunnels. It is interesting to me that many of these stories are narrated by animals, or animals figure prominently in the cast of characters. But that point of interest was not enough to fully engage me in the book, and I found myself wishing it was over. I know that there is a devoted legion of Kafka fans, and I wondered what I was missing. Perhaps I just felt that the stories were too bleak, but only for the sake of being bleak – as if they represented a stilted vision of life. I’m not sure. What I do know is that it’s going to take me a while to pick up another Kafka book.

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