In the aftermath of any nuclear apocalypse, the story goes that cockroaches will be one of the few species to mutate and survive. If this is true, then one could reasonably argue that the transformation from human to cockroach of Franz Kafka’s character Gregor Samsa, in his story story “The Metamorphosis” was an evolutionary step forward.
The underlying context of Marc Estrin’s novel Kafka’s Roach: The Life and Times of Gregor Samsa is the relationship of the Other to a world where its inhabitants reject, ignore and even murder those it considers different. To emphasize this, Estrin’s Samsa is both a cockroach and Jewish; both of them the subject of revulsion in many circles. Set in the Twentieth Century, the story of the man-become-cockroach is as much a story of despair as it is a story of hope. The question the reader is left with when Estrin is through with his tale though is whether or not hope and the actions of well-meaning people are enough to overcome the misery and murder other humans willingly inflict on humanity and its environs.
Estrin composed this novel around the turn of the current century. The towers of the World Trade Center were in hospice when he started and some kind of apocalypse seemed possible by the time the first version was published. I remember reading through various drafts, eagerly awaiting the next chapter he would deliver when I stopped by his house. In 2002, after numerous revisions with his editor, a version of the tale was published by an imprint of Penguin titled Insect Dreams: The Half-Life of Gregor Samsa. This version checked in at just under five hundred pages. The version under review here is what I like to call the director’s cut. It checks in at just under eight hundred pages. What this means for the reader is that the transitions in Mr. Samsa’s life and in the writing itself are smoother. To continue the film metaphor, the transitions in Insect Dreams were similar to the film-editing style known as “jump-cut,” whereas the transitions in Kafka’s Roach are considerably smoother and much less jarring. Simultaneously, the extended text allows for the author to expound (a la novelists like Tom Robbins) on ideas that one presumes are dear to his heart.
The story begins in the immediate aftermath of the transformation described in Kafka’s brief yet earth-changing tale. In the original story, Samsa the roach is discarded in a rubbish pile. In Estrin’s opening, Mr. Samsa is secretly removed from this residence and transferred to the equivalent of a circus freak show owned and managed by a man who is a bit of a freak himself—a certain Herr Hoffnung. Like certain other names in the novel, Hoffnung’s moniker is specific and intentional. The English translation of hoffnung is hope. Herr Hoffnung’s character epitomizes that part of the faith, hope, and charity triad taught to Christians everywhere. A victim of the rapid aging disease called Werner’s syndrome, Hoffnung surrounds himself with other freaks of human nature and provides the whole bunch of them with employment and a community, thereby rescuing them from a life of ostracism and depression. It is here where the reader is first introduced to Estrin’s dissertation on Otherness in human society. This band of freaks has formed its own society in the midst (or is it on the outskirts) of so-called conventional society and are on most accounts happier for their endeavor.
Samsa becomes an intellectual celebrity of sorts, reading scientific texts, then Rilke and finally the then-popular book The Decline of the West by historian and Prussian nationalist Oswald Spengler. This last book would be adopted by the Nazis and Italian fascists as rationale for their rule, despite the fact that their interpretation was both egocentric and an incorrect interpretation of Spengler’s timeline, which actually states that his so-called time of the Caesars would not begin until the year 2000. As the Nazis begin their rise to power and the Jews of Germany begin to understand that they are the Nazis’ primary internal target for destruction, Estrin’s Samsa flies away to the United States where he has become something of a celebrity thanks to a fluke and the nature of popular culture.
This is when Samsa’s adventure truly takes off. This is also the beginning of the reader’s winding journey through Twentieth Century history as told through the compound eyes of a roach as interpreted by the author Estrin. From his humble beginnings as an elevator operator in Manhattan to his stint in Charles Ives’ New Jersey insurance company where he “invents” the science of risk assessment to the Franklin Delano Roosevelt household as an advisor to the president, Gregor Samsa seems to be living a textbook version of the American Dream. Then he is sent to Los Alamos, New Mexico to work on the creation of the atomic bomb. It is here where he meets the narrator of Estrin’s novel. It is also in Los Alamos where Samsa faces his ultimate existential crisis. The development of the weapon not only appalls him, it also fascinates him. Like so many others, the implicit power given to the humans working on the bomb and of course in the bomb itself, makes Samsa question his involvement and the nature of his humanity (but then again, he is a roach.) In response, he resolves to make a political and poetic statement regarding its existence and its ability to end all life. Except perhaps, the cockroach.