Sunday, November 25, 2012

Kafka: The Man Who Disappeared

Translated by Richie Robinson.

The Man Who Disappeared (also known as America) is unfinished. It is one of Kafka's earlier writings and although dark, has some humor and even slapstick elements to it. This edition comes with "fragments," a few segments that are not connected up in an obvious way with the main body of the novel. They give the impression that the novel might go on indefinitely, one dealing with Karl's servitude to Brunelda and the other about the great theater of Oklahama (sic) and his efforts to gain employment with this great enterprise. America does not seem to be an unsuitable title, as the novel  as much about poor Karl Rossman as it is about the country of America, which Rossman travels across. At least it is Kafka's vision of America. The errors in geography and spelling seem as though they could be intentional, creating a clearly fictional or fantastic ambiance, as they could be errors. Although one wonders why, if Kafka was concerned about accuracy, he couldn't easily look up the geographical distance between Boston and New York (in the novel they are adjacent connected by a bridge), or the correct spelling of Oklahoma.

Poor Karl Rossman's story is something of a Pinnochio tale except that Rossman's moral sense is strong--in fact his moral sense is much stronger than that of anyone with whom he comes into contact. He knows right from wrong, and in fact exhibits common sense, industry, intelligence, drive, trustworthiness, and resilience. Bombarded with the haphazard, unpredictable and irrational whims of the Americans he encounters, Karl has little chance of thriving. He moves from expecting people to have rational and logical responses to situations and details, to having little hope that those with whom he interacts will behave in a reasonable manner.

Karl first was sent to America as a young boy because of his run in with a 35-year-old woman. Her seduction of him left her pregnant and Karl in trouble. The women in The Man Who Disappeared are not unanimously trouble, but are  consistently troublesome for Karl. They are sexually promiscuous, powerful, demanding, and spoiled. Two women do come to Karl's rescue, but in they end they fail him. The chief cook at the Hotel Occidental, takes him in, gets him a job, and introduces him to her protégé who becomes Karl's close friend. They are unable to save him when he is wrongfully accused of misconduct at the hotel and unceremoniously fired from his position. In fact, most of the Americans Karl encounters are undisciplined, driven by emotion rather than reason, scheming or lazy, and criminal.

Regardless of Karl's sincerity, desire to please, respect, and hard work, he is consistently dragged down. After his first good fortune of being recognized and taken in by his wealthy but idiosyncratic uncle, he is not long after completely rejected by him because he leaves to spend the night with one of his uncle's friends despite the uncle's reluctance to have their routine interrupted. The house he visits is one with unfinished halls, staircases unnavigable because of darkness, twists and turns that lead the uninitiated wanderer astray. People seem to take liberties with Karl, they stand too close, their hands are all over him, he is treated something like a small child or worse yet, a toy. Karl is vaguely aware that the way he is treated is inappropriate but in the early days of his American sojourn chooses to think the best of most people.

After leaving his uncle's care, Karl runs into two rascals, an Irishman and a Frenchman, who are happy to keep Karl with them to pay for their meals and lodgings. It is the chief cook at the Hotel Occidental that helps Karl escape from these two ne'er do wells. Karl lost faith in them when he realized that they had gone through his things and lost the one photograph he had of his parents.

It is these two rascals that cause him trouble at the hotel leading to his dismissal, and that then take him captive and force him into servitude. The antics of these two men (also reminiscent of the rascals that lead Pinnochio astray) are not unlike unsavory but comic characters of Dickens, or the absurdist antics of, to be anachronistic, a Samuel Beckett play or characters found in Alice in Wonderland. One scene features a chaotic political demonstration that reminded me of both the political scenes from the Pickwick Papers and generally, Dickens' description of the United States in Martin Chuzzlewit.

The novel ends, not including the fragments, with Karl ingeniously putting together a breakfast of left over scraps for his demanding but madly delusional captors. As they enjoy the food he has scavanged for them, he is rewarded with a handful of biscuits.

Karl, unlike the Americans, always does his utmost. He answers questions fully and succinctly to a suprising detail. He is perceptive and knows what is futile and what is not. He becomes less naive as the novel progresses. His difficulties make him wiser and more cautious. In one of the fragments, his captors seem to have disappeared but Karl is still responsible for their employer/lover Brunelda. In the fragment, Karl is transporting the very large Brunelda who is hiding beneath a blanket, in a hand pulled carriage. Karl is able to follow a very intricate path to their destination. "He went very cautiously; before turning a corner he would scrutinize the next street . . . if he foresaw what could be a disagreeable encounter he would wait till it could be avoided or would even choose a route through a quite different street. Even then, as he had carefully studied all the possible routes in advance, he never ran the risk of making a substantial detour" (192). So despite his distaste for Brunelda and his involuntary servitude, Karl puts his all into the task.

Because Karl's story is unfinished we can't know what lessons there are to be learned from the culmination of his life events. In the introduction there is some suggestion that Karl would meet his end through execution, innocently, but gently (xxii). It is certainly a cautionary tale for the would-be immigrant, and perhaps also a joke at the expense of the uncivilized American. For my part, I'd like to think that Karl achieves the "American dream," and finds a place to call home, a good book, a good friend, and food on the table.

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