Amerika: The Missing Person, by Franz Kafka, translated by Mark Harman (Schocken Books, 2008)
It would not be surprising if the word Kafkaesque had crossed one’s mind at some point during the last decade, particularly if you happened to live in America during the period of September 11, 2001, to November 4, 2008, a period that should perhaps be known as The Great Acting Out, bounded on one end by the destruction of the terrorist attacks and on the other by the arrival of the deferred dream of an historic election.
It was during this time that the United States created its own Penal Colony; detained people for years without trial, then held trials with evidence so classified even the defendants couldn’t review it; spoke of the most brutal and unjust acts in a singularly euphemistic language of “enhanced interrogation techniques” and “taking the gloves off”; and sometimes—in dank prisons, on dusty streets, or from high in the air—decided a man was guilty and cut him down, as Josef K. exclaimed at the end of his own life, “Like a dog!” And all of this was hid in the plain sight of legal memoranda and policy pronouncements.
If re-reading “In the Penal Colony” gives one the creepy feeling of being anticipated by Kafka—it’s almost impossible not to picture the officer, the island’s last believer in the torture apparatus, as Dick Cheney—we should not be surprised that Kafka has just as much to say about our new era of economic crisis in his first novel, The Missing Person, published as Amerika by his friend and editor Max Brod after Kafka’s death. Schocken books has now re-issued the novel in a new translation by Mark Harman, a professor of German and English whose acclaimed translation of The Castle appeared in 1998. This new edition also restores some fragments not included in previous versions.
Karl Rossman, age seventeen, is sent to America by his parents after knocking up a housemaid in the old country. (In a retelling that perfectly combines the sexual revulsion and fantasy found in an adolescent mind, he is seduced against his will: “though she had asked him to undress her, it was she who undressed him and put him in her bed.”) The questions he faces in America are the ones that have returned to face us as well: whether the American dream offers something real or illusory, and whether the existence of the promise and possibility of success is enough to make up for what happens to those who don’t find it.
Things seem to start off well for Karl. Improbably, on the very ship he sails in on, he is united with a rich uncle, a senator who promises to help him make his fortune in New York. Just as improbably, the housemaid has written to the uncle asking him to help Karl. The uncle reveals himself in the nick of time, saving Karl from an ill-fated run-in on the ship. Karl has befriended the ship’s stoker, an underdog with a gripe against the ship’s officials, and he agrees to help the stoker take his complaint to the captain. But their argument goes poorly and the stoker gives up, opening up Karl to be blamed for starting the whole incident. The uncle steps in to vouch for him and suggests that no one, most of all Karl, will benefit from sympathizing too much with the losing side:
“The stoker will get what he deserves,” said the senator, “and what the captain considers appropriate. Besides, I think we’ve had enough of the stoker, more than enough, as I’m sure all the other gentlemen will agree.”
“But that’s beside the point when it’s a matter of justice,” said Karl.
. . .
“Don’t misunderstand the situation,” the senator said to Karl, “it is perhaps a matter of justice, but it is at the same time a matter of discipline. And on board the ship it is the captain who determines both, and especially the latter.”
“That is so,” muttered the stoker.
In scenes like this, The Missing Person also proves itself a wonderful work through which to rediscover Kafka’s gift for comedy and satire. Zadie Smith, in an article in the New York Review of Books called “Franz Kafka, Everyman,” discusses the recent movement among critics of Kafka toward chipping away at Max Brod’s influential view of Kafka as spiritual prophet and interrogator of fathers and gods, a view Brod sometimes seems to promote to the point of suppressing the comedy at play in the work. One of the authors discussed in Smith’s article quotes Brod’s biography:
It is a new kind of smile that distinguishes Kafka’s work, a smile close to the ultimate things—a metaphysical smile so to speak—indeed sometimes when he used to read out one of his tales for us friends of his, it rose above a smile and we laughed aloud. But we were soon quiet again. It is no laughter befitting human beings.
Harman, in his introduction to The Missing Person, shares the following from one of Brod’s letters:
We friends of his laughed quite immoderately when he first let us hear the first chapter of The Trial. And he himself laughed so much that there were moments when he couldn't read any further. Astonishing enough, when you think of the fearful earnestness of this chapter.
As Smith puts it, “Brod couldn't quite believe that Kafka was being funny when he was being funny.”
So it is surprising and, yes, funny to read passages from Kafka that wouldn’t be out of place in a Marx Brothers film or a screwball comedy. (Imagine an alternate universe where a less tubercular Kafka, fleeing the Nazis, comes to America and finds work as a Hollywood screenwriter in the late ’30s and ’40s.) When Karl is invited to the country house of one Pollunder, one of his uncle’s friends (an invitation that, by accepting, leads his uncle to disown him), Karl meets the friend’s daughter, Miss Klara. Their relationship quickly devolves into a wrestling match that parodies the typical country house seduction scene while highlighting the physicality of sex with a modern frankness:
. . . whether by design or simply out of excitement, she pushed his chest so forcefully that he would have fallen out of the window had he not slipped from the windowsill and had his feet not at the last minute touched the floor. “I was about to fall out,” he said reproachfully. “It’s a pity you didn’t. Why are you so bad? I’ll push you back down.” With a body steeled by athletics, she seized Karl, who was so bewildered for a moment he forgot to go limp, and carried him to the window. But on approaching the window he came to his senses, freed himself by swiveling his hips around quickly, and then in turn seized her. “Oh, you’re hurting me,” she said at once. Karl, however, thought that he should not release her now. He gave her sufficient freedom to move at will but kept following her about and did not release her. Besides, it was so easy to get an arm around her in that tight dress. “Let me go,” she whispered; her flushed face was now beside his, indeed so close that he had to strain his eyes to look at her. “Let me go, I’ll give you something wonderful.”
When Klara breaks free she puts one hand on Karl’s throat and delivers an insane tirade that includes the fabulously goofy line, “. . . you’re a tolerably handsome youth, and if you’d learned some jujitsu, you’d probably have beaten me up.”
Kafka also writes scenes that get their comic mileage from putting Karl in increasingly mortifying circumstances, reminiscent of nothing so much as Ben Stiller movies like “There’s Something About Mary” and “Meet the Parents.” For example, we first learn the sordid details of Karl’s affair with the housemaid because his uncle chooses to tell the story to all of the gentlemen gathered in the ship’s cabin, just after Karl has delivered a rousing speech defending the stoker. The uncle begins:
My dear nephew was simply—let’s not shy away from the word that really describes what happened—was simply cast aside by his parents, the way one throws out a cat when it becomes annoying.
He continues by mentioning that Karl seems to have come to America to escape paying for child support, and then, producing the letter itself, goes on in this mortifying vein:
“If my main intention was to entertain you, gentlemen, there are several passages in this letter”—from his pocket he drew two enormous sheets of paper filled with cramped handwriting and waved them about—“that I could certainly read aloud . . . but I don’t wish to entertain you more than is necessary for the sake of clarification . . . .”
What Kafka accomplishes in these comic moments of Karl’s degradation is mirrored in a more sinister and satirical fashion by the overall movement of the plot. The book progresses by bursting a series of naïve bubbles that Karl blows for himself by believing too much in the promise of his situation and in the pure motives of those around him. As each situation sours, his journey takes the form of a downward spiral: from the life of a rich young New Yorker fully supported by his Uncle; to a steady job as an elevator operator at the Occidental Hotel in the great Midwestern city of Ramses; to working as a harried servant in the house of a monstrous woman named Brunelda. After leaving Brunelda, Karl sees a poster for the Theater of Oklahama (the misspelling is deliberate):
The poster offered Karl one great enticement. “Everyone is welcome,” it said. Everyone—in other words, Karl too. Everything he had ever done was forgotten, no one would reproach him anymore.
Could Karl have found the American dream at last?
Unfortunately, when he arrives at the theater’s admissions office (surely the most surreal HR department ever imagined, set up in the middle of a racetrack, at the entrance of which “was a long, low platform on which hundreds of women, dressed as angels in white robes with large wings on their backs, blew long trumpets that shone like gold,” with a series of offices set up to verify the credentials of the applicants according to their previous professions) Karl cannot prove that he is qualified to do anything. After trying and failing to fake his way in as an engineer, he is sent to an office at the outermost edge of the track to at least prove he was once a European middle school student. Lacking even the papers for that, he is admitted only because of a clerk’s pity, and when asked his name, Karl “gives them the nickname from his last few positions: ‘Negro.’ ”
Here is another of The Missing Person’s astonishing moments: Kafka has written a book about America in which his hero, an Eastern European immigrant, chooses to use the term “Negro” as a way to identify himself—a term that he is called by his own employers (it’s hard to tell if we are meant to assume at this point that Karl was given this “nickname” at previous jobs we know about, or if Kafka meant to write new scenes). We may never know with certainty why Karl does this, but the context of his journey seems to make the reasoning behind his statement abundantly clear: America has failed him. The Americans with whom he identifies most after his journey are among its most oppressed peoples, its former slaves.
As Harman explains in an article published in Congress Monthly, one of the sources for Kafka’s novel was Arthur Holitscher, author of the book America Today and Tomorrow:
Kafka had read Holitscher’s comparison of the plight of the less successful poor Jewish immigrants, left behind in the tenements on the lower east side, with that of black Americans, and six years after writing this chapter of The Missing Person he asserted cryptically in a letter to Milena Jesenská that he and Milena’s Jewish husband “both have the same Negro face.”
Kafka never finished The Missing Person. The book ends with Karl on the train to Oklahama, looking out at the wild landscape of the American West, with mountain rivers “plunging under the bridges over which the train passed, and coming so close that the breath of their chill made one’s face quiver.” In his introduction Harman explains that, according to Brod, Karl was going to find his profession and “even his old home and his parents, as if by some paradisiacal magic.” Yet Harman also quotes one of Kafka’s diary entries, comparing the endings of The Missing Person and The Trial: “Rossmann and K., the innocent and the guilty, both executed without distinction in the end, the innocent one with a gentler hand, more pushed aside than struck down.”
Harman mentions a photo of a lynching in Holitscher’s book titled “Idyll from Oklahama” (yes, with the same misspelling), and suggests that this could have been Karl’s fate—which wouldn’t be too surprising for a man calling himself “Negro” and heading to “Oklahama” in the early 1900s. Yet this doesn’t seem to fit with the diary entry’s ending of a “gentler” execution in which Karl is “pushed aside.”
According to Harman, the German title Der Verschollene is derived from a verb whose infinitive means “to cease making a sound” or “to fade away.” Perhaps Karl fades away because, like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, America doesn’t see him. Karl—the missing person—has disappeared.
Harman hopes that readers will gain a new appreciation for The Missing Person, which he thinks has been too long overshadowed by The Trial and The Castle. That overshadowing was likely due to Kafka’s sanctification by Brod and others, itself perhaps the inevitable response not only to Kafka’s untimely death, but also to the horrors that awaited Europe in the decades to come. As a consequence, for many years a comic satire about America didn’t quite fit our “idea” of Kafka. Yet we should be very glad—especially in America—that Kafka always had his ideas about this country, and that they are here so expertly presented and preserved.