Franz Kafka’s ‘Amerika’, one hundred years on.

INTRODUCTION

Kafka’s first novel has two titles: Amerika and Der Verschollene (The Man who went Missing).  The bulk was written circa 1912; and the version we have now (plus two fragments) was completed by 1914; but Kafka went on to write other things and left the work unfinished.  The first seven chapters from a continuous narrative; the eighth and final chapter is somewhat detached – a coda or appendix, which presents a utopian vision at variance with the main part.  (Two fragments expand on the material in the seventh chapter.)

The first chapter (Der Heizer/The Stoker) was published on its own, in 1913.  The novel as a whole was published in 1935, after Kafka’s death (1924).

Amerika is the first of Kafka’s three novels.  (Der Prozess*/The Trial and Das Schloss*/The Castle are the others.)  It is written in Kafka’s recognisable style – clear, vivid, precise, with attention to background details.  (*The new orthography is used for these titles and for the hero’s name, in English.  [The symbol ‘ß’ is often replaced by ‘ss’.]  But the old orthography is followed in quotations from the German, below.)

Kafka never visited the USA but read travel books, memoirs and Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography: using his imagination, he created a fictional country.

 

A NOT-SO-BRAVE NEW WORLD

Amerika portrays a rather dystopian society.  Obedience to rules and respect for authority figures are of paramount importance; even minor infringements or slights (or acts that are perceived as such) are not tolerated but punished.  “Good will is lacking”, so the accused is unable to mount a defence: “Es ist nicht möglich, sich zu verteidigen, wenn nicht guter Wille da ist,” thinks the protagonist [Chapter 6].

It is easy for a newcomer like Karl (the protagonist) to go wrong: in due course, he looks back on the mistakes he has made:

Wie unvorsichtig war er gewesen, alle Ratschläge der Oberköchin, alle Warnungen Theresens, alle eigenen Befürchtungen hatte er vernachlässigt…. [Chapter 7]

How careless he had been to ignore all the head cook’s advice, all Therese’s warnings, and all his own fears….

THE CHARACTERS

The uncle, Mr Mack, Mr Green, Klara Pollunder, Delamarche, Robinson, the head waiter, the head porter and Brunelda – each controls or exploits or manipulates Karl.  The pattern is one of dominance, modified by the granting of small concessions.  There are arguments, fist-fights (even), and attempts by Karl to escape from detention.  Only the ship’s stoker, the head cook and Therese accept Karl as he is.  (They are all native speakers of German; and although they come from different parts of Germany and Austria-Hungary, they all refer to themselves as “Germans”.)

THE THREE NOVELS

In Kafka’s novels, the protagonist seeks to establish his identity and his place in the society he enters (Amerika, Das Schloss), or to confirm his status in the society he already inhabits (Der Prozess).  In Amerika, the young hero, Karl Rossmann, finds this ambition well-nigh impossible to achieve.  He is naïve, trusting, quixotic – an innocent abroad.  It is little wonder that he suffers a series of rebuffs.

 

Common to all three novels is the gradual revelation of the dynamics of power.  Whereas Der Prozess and Das Schloss conjure up societies where sinister forces are at work, unseen or only glimpsed, in Amerika the strong show their hand openly.  Moreover, whereas Josef K (Der Prozess) and K (Das Schloss) try to outwit the authorities, Karl tries to comply with the demands placed upon him, in order to get on in society.

 

PICTURES OF AMERICA

 

1 Amerika opens with a picture of the protagonist in context, as he arrives in New York from Europe:

Als der sechzehnjährige Karl Roßmann, der von seinen armen Eltern nach Amerika geschickt worden war, weil ihn ein Dienstmädchen verführt und ein Kind von ihm bekommen hatte, in dem schon langsam gewordenen Schiff in den Hafen von New York einfuhr, erblickte er die schon längst beobachtete Statue der Freiheitsgöttin wie in einem plötzlich stärker gewordenen Sonnenlicht.  Ihr Arm mit dem Schwert ragte….empor….

As the sixteen-year-old Karl Rossmann, sent to America by his poor parents because a maid had seduced him and had had a child by him, was sailing into New York Harbour on board the gradually slowing ship, he caught sight again of the Statue of the Goddess of Liberty, which appeared to be lit up by a burst of sunshine.   Clutching her sword, her arm towered above him….

2 Later, from the sixth floor of his uncle’s business empire, Karl looks down on the busy street below:

Und morgens wie abends und in den Träumen der Nacht vollzog sich auf dieser Straße ein immer drängender Verkehr, der, von oben gesehen, sich als eine aus immer neuen Anfängen inandergestreute Mischung von verzerrten menschlichen Figuren und von Dächern der Fuhrwerke aller Art darstellte, von der aus sich noch eine neue, vervielfältigte, wildere Mischung von Lärm, Staub und Gerüchen erhob…. [Chapter 2]

And morning, noon and night, and into the small hours, there was a constant stream of traffic on the ground, which, seen from above, formed an ever changing kaleidoscope of distorted human figures and the roofs of waggons of every kind, from which rose a new, intensified, chaotic amalgam of noise, dust and smells….

 

3 Inside his uncle’s warehouse, there is a constant bustle too:

Mitten durch den Saal war ein beständiger Verkehr von hin und her gejagten Leuten.  Keiner grüßte, das Grüßen war abgeschafft. [Chapter 2]

Through the middle of the hall there was a continual stream of people, chased hither and thither.  Nobody uttered a greeting: greeting had been abolished.

Constant movement and restlessness characterise this “America”.

ACCEPTANCE AND REJECTION – 1

Karl is welcomed to America by his uncle and taken into his home.  Relations between them go well, so long as Karl conforms to his uncle’s rules.  When, however, Karl goes away for a short while, his uncle sends him a letter of dismissal:

“Du hast Dich gegen meinen Willen dafür entschieden, heute abend von mir fortzugehen, dann bleibe aber auch bei diesem Entschluß Dein Leben lang….Um unsere Trennung zu begreifen….muß ich mir immer wieder neuerlich sagen: Von Deiner Familie, Karl, kommt nichts Gutes.” [Chapter 3]

“Against my wishes, you decided to leave me this evening.  Stick to this decision….In order to comprehend our separation, I have to keep telling myself, again and again: your family is good for nothing.”

Karl is rejected by the very person who should have helped him.

ACCEPTANCE AND REJECTION – 2

 

Thanks to the good offices of the head cook at the Hotel Occidental, Karl finds work, as a lift boy, and lodging.   He makes two friends – the head cook herself and her assistant, Therese.

 

This arrangement is disrupted by the unexpected and unwelcome appearance at the hotel of his acquaintance, Robinson, in a drunken state.  Karl breaks two rules: he leaves his post, to get Robinson out of the way, and shelters him in the lift boys’ dormitory.  His superiors soon find out, and they sack him.  At one go, Karl loses his job, his accommodation, his belongings – and contact with his two friends.

DISMISSAL, TRIAL, DETENTION, ESCAPE

The head waiter and the head porter detain Karl: they sentence him first, then consider the evidence against him – allegations, both true and false.  Finally, they confirm the sentence but do not let him go – he only escapes by running away in his shirt-sleeves, leaving his jacket in the head porter’s hands.

 

Kafka’s account is full of drama and pathos.

ENDING NO 1 – AT THE HOME OF BRUNELDA

 

Karl escapes from the clutches of the head porter in the hotel and a policeman (successively), only to land up in the flat of Brunelda – a rich, fat, lazy, moody, demanding woman – and her other guests, Delamarche and Robinson, of whom Karl has already had bad experiences.  Demands are made on Karl to help to look after Brunelda – he resists.  He finds himself confined: “er war in einer regelrechten Gefangenschaft” [Chapter 7] (“he was, effectively, being held captive”).

Karl tries to escape, even though he has nowhere else to go; but, by the end of the seventh chapter, he has failed to get away.

ENDING NO 2 – THE OKLAHOMA NATURE THEATRE

The eighth chapter marks a new development, with very little connection with what has gone before.  Karl is presented as a free man, taking a fresh look at his options.  He sees an advertisement, inviting people to join the Oklahoma Nature Theatre.  It is not made clear what precisely this organisation does.  It appears that everyone who applies is taken on.  Karl himself is accepted as a “technical worker”.  The chapter ends as Karl travels, by train, towards an uncertain future, full of hope.

CONCLUSION

 

Karl wishes to be integrated into American society and, at the same time, to live a life of his own.  In this America, however – particularly in the first seven chapters – he is under constant pressure to conform to strict, often arbitrary rules; when he fails to conform he suffers rejection.  Personal relationships take the form of domination by one party and submission by the other – not the sort of relationship that Karl seeks.  Only the friendship of Therese and Karl has the hallmarks of equality; but this is spoilt by people with overriding power.

The effect of the first seven chapters, taken together, is sad.  Memories of the hurts the protagonist has suffered remain in the mind of the reader.  We are left with the impression of an essentially dysfunctional society.

The final chapter offers a vision of hope.  Is this sufficient, however, to compensate for the darkness of the earlier chapters?

Amerika serves, perhaps, as a warning to us to value the human, the personal, the intimate, and not to over-emphasise order, money-making and production.

David Harries

September 2013

 

 

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