AMERIKA (The Man Who Disappeared)

By Franz Kafka

Translated from the German

By Michael Hofmann

New Directions. 218 pp. $23.95

When Franz Kafka (1883-1924) submitted "The Metamorphosis" to the Berlin newspaper Neue Rundschau, one of its editors -- the novelist Robert Musil, no less -- asked him to cut the novella by a third. This may seem like sacrilege, but I'm not sure that Musil wasn't right. Kafka achieves his best effects in his shorter parables -- "The Hunter Gracchus," "In the Penal Colony," "The Hunger Artist" -- and in his brief aphoristic reflections on the human condition: "A cage went in search of a bird." His longer works tend to be unfocused, rambling and often surprisingly dull. Milan Kundera even argues that we pay too much attention to The Trial, The Castle and Amerika, which the writer wanted burned along with various other fragments, and should instead focus our critical gaze more strictly on the finished work he actually published.

Going further, one could make the case that Kafka is less an effective storyteller, let alone a good novelist, than a master of what Hollywood calls "high concept." Often he'll take a striking, deeply haunting idea -- Josef K. finds himself arrested without having done anything wrong, a young man wakes up one morning to discover he's been transformed into a monstrous insect, an ape presents a paper to a scientific conclave -- and then somehow muffle it in rhetoric and vagueness. What else do we remember of these stories beyond their initial premise (and their brilliant opening sentences)? Yet how much more do we really need or want?

Still, those haunting images, those unsettling meditations on the miseries of the soul, remain in our minds forever and are Kafka's glory: A man starves to death because he can find no food that he likes to eat. Another spends his life before a door that never opens. As for Kafka's mini-parables and diary entries, well, some of them are as unforgettable as Zeno's paradoxes or as starkly anguished as anything in Pascal: "The hunting dogs are playing in the courtyard, but the hare will not escape them, no matter how fast it may be flying already through the woods." "Sunday, July 19, slept, awoke, slept, awoke, miserable life."

Of course, Kafka is, for good or ill, much more than just a writer. He's an emblem, the poster boy of 20th-century alienation. The tubercular, haunted, noise-sensitive genius, living with his parents, working for an insurance company, unhappy in his skin, out of place in the world in every way. "Please look on me as a dream," he once told some sleeping people he had accidentally disturbed. And we do. He seems scarcely human to us, as sensitive and weird in his own way as Michael Jackson. It's always surprising to realize that people in our lifetime knew Kafka, heard him laugh, even went to bed with him. Nabokov thought he once glimpsed the writer on a Berlin streetcar in 1927. Einstein could have met him at a Prague salon they both used to visit.

While The Trial and The Castle are generally viewed as typically "Kafkaesque" -- the mysterious accusation from unknown authorities, the layers of feudal personnel and obfuscation surrounding the unseen but looming Castle -- Amerika (The Man Who Disappeared) is sometimes regarded as simply drolly picaresque. Certainly, it is less stultifying, less enclosed, less ponderous than the other two (Auden once said of Kafka that "in no other imaginary world, I think, is everything so heavy"). Parts of Amerika even approach comedy (and remind us that listeners laughed and laughed when Kafka read aloud from his fiction -- this seems almost incomprehensible). For instance, its central section, with Karl Rossmann working as a lift boy at the Hotel Occidental, takes on the pace of silent-movie humor, as things spin out of control after a drunk vomits down the elevator shaft. I can't help wondering if Thomas Mann used that chapter as a source for his own humorous (and very sexy) account of Felix Krull's career as an elevator operator.

This new English version of Amerika replaces the old 1928 standby of Willa and Edwin Muir. Though the husband-and-wife team were splendid translators, they worked from an incomplete text that had been over-edited by Kafka's friend and executor Max Brod (who also gave it the title Amerika; the writer himself always referred to it as Der Verschollene, "The Man Who Disappeared"). What's more, the Muirs aimed for a surface vividness that slightly improves on the plainness of Kakfa's original. Michael Hofmann -- a poet and critic, as well as the much-admired translator of Joseph Roth -- works from the full critical text and has produced what will doubtless become the definitive English version.

The book opens with 16- or 17-year-old Karl Rossmann arriving in America, having been sent abroad "because a maid had seduced him and had a child by him." As his ship sails into New York Harbor, he sees the Statue of Liberty, noting that "the sword in her hand seemed only just to have been raised aloft." Sword? One supposes a mistake, since Kafka never saw the monument. Yet it grows increasingly clear that Karl has landed in a nightmarish new world where everything is slightly off-kilter, skewed and disorienting. A bridge over the Hudson connects New York to Boston.

In the first chapter, published as "The Stoker: A Fragment" (and which Robert Musil found "enchanting"), the German stoker on Karl's ship faces a tribunal of officers when he complains about being bossed around by a Romanian. At the bizarre inquiry, Karl accidentally meets his rich uncle, who comes to dote on him; a few months later, he encounters an American plutocrat who invites him out to his country estate. While there, Karl learns that Uncle Jakob -- offended by his nephew's having accepted the rival businessman's invitation -- has cut him off entirely. So the boy takes to the open road and joins up with a couple of unemployed workers, Robinson and Delamarche, hardly more than tramps. After a quarrel with his companions, Karl next lands the elevator job at the Hotel Occidental and begins a tentative relationship with a former kitchen maid. Alas, Robinson reappears, Karl loses his position, and the two join a bizarre me{acute}nage centered on the enormously fat opera singer Brunelda, who can scarcely move on her own. In a final fragment, Karl enlists in the vast and mysterious Theater of Oklahoma, which ominously promises "a place for everyone."

So much for the plot, or rather what remains of it. Beyond its Candide-in-the-New-World quality, Amerika offers variations on Kafka's favorite theme: a son's fraught relationship with his father. In this case, Karl is alternately aided, rejected and manhandled by various father substitutes. More interestingly, perhaps, the novel churns with strange sexual undercurrents, though it's unclear just quite what we're to make of them. Is the uncle's love for his nephew as unnatural as it seems? Why do so many men keep stroking Karl's hand? Why does Karl always find himself in sadomasochistic tussles with women (or men), with much wrestling and entwining of limbs? Is it true that a pat on the cheek from Brunelda carries a thrill like nothing else? There are hints that Karl was intended, eventually, to end up working in a brothel.

Despite the New World venue, Amerika actually does strike ominous "Kafkaesque" notes: the endless corridors of the ship, the strange "trial" of the stoker, the series of empty rooms in Mr. Pollunder's country mansion, the two tramps who recall the comic and sinister "assistants" in The Castle, the cruelty of nameless authorities -- the Head Porter, the Head Waiter -- as they cross-examine the boy over imaginary crimes. In a particularly tantalizing moment, when Karl joins the "greatest theater in the world," he gives the name he's been using on his "last jobs": "Negro." Yet again one yearns for those unwritten portions of the novel. Sounding more than ever like his creator, near the end of all these fragments Karl looks "sadly down at the street, as though it were his own bottomless sadness."

Kafka wrote of his first published book, Meditations: "Ultimately, even with the greatest experience and the greatest keenness, the flaws in these pieces do not reveal themselves at first glance." This isn't true of Amerika (The Man Who Disappeared), which is quite evidently a thing of shreds and patches, suggesting at times silent film, theater of the absurd, J.G. Ballard's phantasmagoric Hello, America, sadomasochistic fantasy, Waiting for Godot and Kafka's own later fiction. Still, one can hardly fail to welcome Michael Hofmann's more accurate English text. Perhaps it will actually gain the book some new readers. For like Cervantes, Kafka has become one of those writers whose work we already know, or think we know, even when we haven't read a word of it. His fiction no longer shocks or surprises us: After all, "Kafkaesque" describes the world that every one of us, alas, now lives in. *

Michael Dirda's email address is dirdam@washpost.com. His online discussion of books takes place each Thursday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.

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