Why Are We Kafkaesque?

Still from Orson Welles’ The Trial (1962).

In the late 1980s, still during the communist era, while visiting Prague, a friend gave me Franz Kafka’s ‘The Castle’ in Czech. It was an edition from the 1960s, the decade leading up to the Prague Spring, when publishing and reading Kafka was allowed in Czechoslovakia, albeit for a short time. After the Russian invasion of 1968, the new pro-Soviet regime in Czechoslovakia banned the writer from Prague again because, in his work, Kafka had described with lucidity and precision the functioning of arbitrariness, one of the characteristics of all totalitarianisms. When my stay in Prague was over, as I was driving towards the border, before reaching passport control, I remembered the banned book that I had carelessly left beside me. I stopped the car in the roadside to hide ‘The Castle’ at the bottom of my suitcase. But as in Kafka’s novels, some watchful eye was following my movements. When I got to the checkpoint, a policeman asked me to open my suitcase. Then, with a confident gesture, he took the book out of it. At customs he subjected me to a tough interrogation.

The Central European culture of the early twentieth century could be defined as the escape from the rationality and order imposed by an all-powerful state – the Austro-Hungarian Empire – from the control that bureaucracy exercised over the individual, from centralism based on the attempt to standardize the many and varied ethnic groups, and to return to the intimate human space. Kafka understood that this was a trend and anticipated it universally, he analyzed it in his books before it took its monstrous dimension in the form of totalitarianism, oppressive ideologies and world wars. That is why Kafka’s books are prophetic.

In his life Kafka was a witness to the First World War, whose end brought the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the creation of small states such as Czechoslovakia. In his novels, he used intimate situations he had experienced as a base: in ‘The Trial’, his complex relationship with his fiancée, the businesswoman Felice Bauer and the “trial” he was confronted with by her family; in ‘The Castle’, his passion for the journalist Milena Jesenská, whose husband he portrayed in Klamm, the lord of the castle; in ‘The Metamorphosis’, his complex relationship with his father. However, to all these situations he gave a metaphorical treatment that goes far beyond intimate realities to bestow a universal dimension on them and indicate within them the social and political trend not only of the 20th century – which was barely in its first quarter when the writer died, in 1924, in a sanatorium in Vienna at the age of 41- but beyond his century.

However, the critics and intellectuals who shared the 20th century with Kafka did not immediately understand his enigmatic work: they spoke of his “fantastic” and “surrealistic” world until a new reality imposed itself: the Second World War. Then those who were looking for the necessary documents, in Marseilles and Lisbon, to flee Europe, spoke of ‘The Trial’ as a prophetic work, and once on the transoceanic ships they remembered his America. Gradually, the term Kafkaesque, kafkiano, kafkaïen, was introduced in most Western languages.

And ‘The Trial’ became the symbol of the powerlessness of the individual at the mercy of state machinery. As in all of Kafka’s work, here too the windows are eyes that never close and see everything. At the beginning of the novel, an elderly couple watches through the window as two gentlemen enter the room of the house across the street, where they arrest K., the novel’s principal character, but not before devouring his breakfast. At the end of the novel, minutes before K.’s execution in a quarry, a window opens and in it a man appears and watches; K. knows that this man will be the witness of his humiliation. And so it is: the man at the window watches as one of the two guards squeezes his throat while the other plunges the knife into his heart. As he dies, K. feels “the shame that will outlive him.”

If, in Kafka’s world, being watched means that there is someone to witness your shame and humiliation, in our contemporary world, the people at the window, in addition to watching, would take a video with their cell phone and post it on YouTube and Instagram so that millions could witness the humiliation of a man. And if Kafka pointed out how intimidating the stares of others are – in ‘The Castle’, Josef K. and Frieda make love under the gazes of two assistant-persecutors – and sought maximum privacy, in the present age the eyes of cameras haunt us in supermarkets and subways, on highways and streets; the eyes of cell phones target us everywhere; at airports there are fingerprint checks that turn us into potential culprits. Just as in our world, where movements are controlled through apps, officials in ‘The Trial’ monitored the schedules and habits of K., whom they detained without any difficulty. What Kafka once pointed out as horror, has become all-pervasive in our age.

The Prague writer’s characters often run and do so whether they are in a hurry or not. At the end of ‘The Trial’, K., about to be executed, “ran away” for no reason. In ‘The Castle’, the inhabitants of the village are constantly moving from one place to another, frequently changing jobs, lodgings and partners, and know everything about each other: they live in an eternal restlessness. In this way, rather than describing his own age, Kafka portrays our nervous and chaotic one in which not only the horror vacui but the rhythm of society pushes people to perform several activities at the same time, like a certain cab driver who drove me home from the airport talking on two cell phones at the same time, besides listening to the radio, following my instructions and driving.

Josef K. and Gregor Samsa, those clerks and salesmen who populate Kafka’s universe, one day get trapped in a city where they are unable to get a residence permit and wake up transformed into an insect, respectively. They too suffer from the same insecurities, imbalances and instabilities as the liquid society of our century.

Kafka’s characters, sullen and lonely despite themselves, are reminiscent of our increasingly autistic contemporary society that spends more time staring at cell phone screens than conversing with real people. Even the surname of the main character in ‘The Metamorphosis’, Samsa, reproduces the sound of “I am alone” in Czech. In ‘Letter to the Father’, the litany of reproaches that the son addresses to the father recalls the complicated relationships between parents and children in today’s world in which the individual is increasingly isolated in a universe of cosmic unhappiness: that of Kafka.

Monika Zgustova is a writer. Her most recent book is Dressed for a Dance in the Snow: Women’s Voices from the Gulag. (Other Press 2020)