I was in Prague in the summer and Franz Kafka’s name came up somewhere somehow. The Czechs are incredibly proud of him. He is among the 20th century’s most celebrated authors and many of his quotes are mind-blowing. Consider this one: “Every revolution evaporates and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy.” One hundred years after the Russian Revolution we can clearly see what he means – but Kafka died seven years after 1917.
When I started reading The Metamorphosis, a sense of deja-vu set in almost immediately. I began to feel that I’ve read this book before. I was an avid reader in my schooldays, so perhaps I must have read it, though the memory is nebulous. The creepy feeling, however, subsists to this day, as I soon found out. The book takes you on a bizarre journey into an unfamiliar domain. Wonder how the author dreamed this up. Should I call it science fiction? But no, the story line is too well-grounded. And it does bring home some home-truths. It is fiction that touches both science and sociology.
Gregor Samsa is a travelling salesman who wakes up one morning to find himself turned into an ugly beetle. Until then he had been a conscientious worker, doing the daily grind, bringing home the bread and butter, supporting his parents and sister, and living a mundane life. But everything changes in a horrific instant. As Gregor’s life changes, the people around him are compelled to readjust their lives rather abruptly. His home-bound father starts going to work. His sister Grete starts taking care of him. His mother keeps a distance.
The cast of characters is minimal. A colleague from Gregor’s office who comes in search of him on Day 1 of the horrendous transformation, and three bearded paying guests who are taken in to supplement the family’s dwindling resources are the only other players in the game.
The original novella was written in German and published in 1915. There have been innumerable translations since. The text is barely 56 pages. The rest of the compendium is comprised of the Introduction, a whole lot of critical essays (some of which I didn’t bother to read) and some key documents including a letter from Kafka to his father (with whom he had a troubled relationship).
Franz Kafka died of tuberculosis in 1924 at the age of forty. He never married, though he had several known liaisons with women. He did not attain fame during his lifetime. He was a Jew and his three sisters perished in the Holocaust. There have been speculations that Kafka suffered from a schizoid personality disorder and/or anorexia nervosa. He was believed to be a loner with suicidal tendencies.
Kafka’s friend and biographer Max Brod was responsible for turning Kafka into a celebrity. Kafka’s wish was that his works should be destroyed but Brod ensured their publication instead. The Trial was published in 1925, followed by The Castle in 1926 and Amerika in 1927. Max Brod fled to Palestine in 1939, taking Kafka’s papers with him. In 1988, two decades after Brod’s death, an original manuscript of The Trial was auctioned for $2 million.
“A belief is like a guillotine, just as heavy, just as light.” Wow, Kakfa! What a quotable!
“I can prove at any time that my education tried to make another person out of me than the one I became.” Yes, he proved it. He was trained to be a lawyer, worked for an insurance company, and look what he became!
Overall Assessment: Eerie and thought-provoking.
The Metamorphosis (Die Verwandlung)
AUTHOR: Franz Kafka (translated from the German by Stanley Corngold)
PUBLISHER: Bantam Classics
YEAR OF PUBLICATION: 1972 (first Bantam Edition) (German original published in 1915)
Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.