Is That Kafka in the 21st Century?

Is that Kafka?“, asks the title of a playful new book from Reiner Stach, one that pulls together 99 facts and observations from the Czech author’s life, all with the purpose of clearing the brush of falsehoods about the man that linger in the public imagination.

Stach, a wonderful writer, who also wrote a three-volume documentary on Kafka, is forthright about the stakes of the book, which is on its surface nothing more than an extended list of items:

[W]here Kafka has persisted as the quintessential archetype of the writer as a sort of alien: unworldly, neurotic, introverted, sick — an uncanny man bringing forth uncanny things. This is only a cliché, but a very powerful one. Because, even if these myths are largely kept alive by those furthest removed from literature — the mass media — nevertheless it has been extraordinarily difficult for experienced readers to resist the pull of this cultural stereotype, powered as it is by such vivid images…a cobblestone alley damp with rain in nighttime Prague, backlit by gas lanterns…piles of papers, dusty in the candlelight…the nightmare of an enormous vermin. All of that is “Kafka,” no matter what literary scholarship might tell us.

To this end, the book is crammed with sad, humorous, amorous, and even ribald “counter-images,” or biographical snapshots of Kafka’s short life, all with headings that recall silent film intertitles before they became complexly narrative: “Kafka Cheats on his Exams,” “Kafka’s Exercise Routine,” “Going Whoring,” “How Kafka and Brod Almost Became Millionaires,” and “Kafka Takes the Subway” — almost every oddity from his life is exemplary.

If these snapshots are mere outtakes from Stach’s biographical writings about Kafka, they are still pleasing, even in list form — the word “list” derives from Old English and means pleasure (for those who don’t overuse it). And Stach is right that the overall effect is to humanize Kafka, who seems to have loved slapstick, to have had a kind of literary Withnail and I-like friendship with Max Brod, who schemed and flirted, was both obstinate and generous — who indeed was called upon by people he had never met for advice.

This also makes the final section of Is that Kafka? — “The End” — sad and moving. He died of tuberculosis at the age of 41, having reluctantly spent time in a sanitorium, and although historical tragedy loomed on the horizon for his friends and family, his death is felt in the book as a tremendous loss for those who knew him. Among the 99 items included are Kafka’s final letter to his family, his will, the epitaph on his gravestone, and his lover Milena Jesenská’s painful obituary:

He was shy, nervous, gentle, and kind, but the books that he wrote were gruesome and painful. He saw a world full of invisible demons that antagonize and annihilate defenseless people. He was too clear-sighted, too wise to live, and too weak to fight: but his was the weakness of noble, beautiful people…

It is generous of Stach to give this last word to Milena, given that it undercuts his attempt to dispel the image of the man as alien and otherworldly. But her vision of Kafka was an important part of a parallax that would try in vain to pin him down. More than 200 pages into Is that Kafka? Stach lets us in on the joke. After a brief description of a protest in Meran, where Kafka was staying at the time, followed by a panoramic, Where’s Waldo?-style image with hundreds of men in suits, Stach points out that two men are standing in line with lamppost are wearing much lighter colored suits — of the type that Kafka preferred. “The figure on the left has Kafka’s strikingly slim, unusually tall build and — to the extent that this can be seen in the picture — his characteristically youthful features,” Stach writes with all of the conspiratorial zeal of a high priest. “While we can’t be certain,” he continues, “there is a high probability: that’s him.”

X

Perhaps, if we looked for Kafka in the 21st century, we would find him in Lagos. This much is shrewdly put forward by forward by Blackass, the debut novel of celebrated Nigerian author A. Igoni Barrett, out this week from Graywolf. And this is to say that Barrett seems as much anyone to understand two things about Kafka: he was funny, and, as Milena said (above), he saw the world as basically unfair and poised on violence.

But first, again: he was funny and bold. So, too, is Barrett, whose novel begins with two epigraphs, one an inscription of the Agba Meta statue at the entrance to Lagos, the other a line from Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. In light of the fact that Blackass is a novel that brims with thick, often hilarious descriptions of Lagos, the former makes perfect sense; but why The Metamorphosis? That much becomes clear as you turn the page.

The thrust of Blackass is all the more Kafka-like (forget the word Kafkaesque) because it is daring and simple: a man, Furo Wariboko, wakes up on the day of an important job interview to find that he has become a white guy; or, at least, all of his body has inexplicably turned white except for his ass — hence the title of the novel. With nowhere to hide, he manages to get dressed, avoid his mother and sister, and make his way out the door of his house without being noticed; until, that is, he sets foot in the broader neighborhood, where (like many places in Lagos, we learn), the inhabitants “have never held a conversation with an oyibo, never considered white people as anything more or less than historical opportunists or gullible victims, never seen red hair, green eyes, or pink nipples except on screen and on paper.”

Along these lines, propelled by the ridiculousness of his situation, Furo faces a series of Odyssean encounters on the way to his interview, where he is promptly hired for a higher paying job than he would have thought possible — precisely because he is white. One of the joys of the novel, in fact, is that whiteness is treated as a kind of soulless existential and economic skeleton key, until it becomes something much worse.

Blackass is, like the best of Kafka, fiction concerned with family psychodrama, as when Furo, estranged by his whiteness, confesses his contempt for his father and his childlike adoration for his mother, whom he dreams would “strip of his clothes and bathe him in warm, Dettol-smelling water, then rub him down with calamine lotion and set him loose to run shrieking around the house.” It is also Kafka-like in the sense that Furo is moved through the plot by way of these relentless, externalized drives and subconscious motivations. When he meets Syreeta, a kept woman who hangs out at a shopping mall, she lures him to her apartment with the promise of a massage. Moments after she puts her hands him, he cries himself to sleep — I laughed as I winced.

There are a couple of baffling metafictional sections that feature the author (or his avatar), one “Igoni,” who eventually undergoes changes himself, but I’ll admit that I’m too mystified by these short sections to render a verdict. Still, the proteanism of Blackass, its emphasis on the absurdity of metamorphosis, points to a pressurized life in a precarious, corrupt world. When Igoni talks of meeting Furo’s sister, with whom he identifies, he puts the frustration of his generation in no uncertain terms:

We were both members of that caste of young adults who grew up in the ruins of Nigeria’s middle class. We were born into the military dictatorships of the ‘80s and ‘90s; we attended the cheaper private schools or the better public ones; we read the same Pacesetter novels and watched the same NTA shows: we lived in cities…Shame and arrogance. Pragmatism and sentimentality. Thoughtless violence and unthinking sacrifice. Red blusher and black skin.

By the time it comes to its unsettling conclusion, Blackass has itself metamorphosed into an imperfect yet affecting social novel, yes, but also set of fateful contradictions about a mad world forcefully and originally seen through to the end. Is that Kafka? Not yet, but it sounds familiar.