After spending what seemed like eons perusing my favorite used bookstore, I came across Amerika by Franz Kafka, the one and only. Being an avid fan of the Kafkaesque (and having read every piece of the man’s work available to me), I scooped it up with glee and brought it to the counter. Later that night I turned the first page, thirsty for some good ol’ fashioned modernist absurdity. I was not to be disappointed. Set in early 20th century America, the story follows a young German immigrant, Karl Rossman, who was ousted from his German home following an affair with a servant woman. In his offbeat adventures, he encounters villains, rogues, and an assortment of circumstances that are just ridiculous. But it’s a novel by Franz Kafka – would you expect no less?
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For those unfamiliar with him, let me give you a brief history of the man. Born into a Jewish family in 1883, Kafka, like many artists of his age, was struck with the apparent meaninglessness of life. Thus, the absurd, the surreal, and, ultimately the Kafkaesque, became his literary trademark. Most of his work (including perhaps his greatest work The Trial) was published posthumously, sometimes in collections of unfinished fragments.
Amerika contains eight chapters, with the action moving from New York to Oklahoma as Karl meets his rich uncle, a pair of freeloaders named Delemarche and Robinsion, and a host of other kooky characters in his search for a new life in a strange land. From rags to riches, and then to rags again, Karl is tossed headfirst into an absurd American world that, at times, just doesn’t make sense.
As I’ve said before, many of Kafka’s works weren’t quite finished, or contained half-written chapter fragments. Such is the case with Amerika. While the majority of the novel is coherent, the final chapter, “Nature Theatre in Oklahoma,” doesn’t quite fit with the chapter that preceded it, and we meet characters for the first time that the protagonist evidently knew from previous, unwritten, chapters.
That’s not to say that this isn’t a great read – it is. Kafka’s writing is flawless, and his characters feel very real. Max Brod, Kafka’s close friend who was later appointed his literary representative, calls Amerika Kafka’s comic masterpiece. As it stands, this book lacks the utter hopelessness of his previous novels and short stories, and adopts a more positive and upbeat outlook on life. In this sense I was slightly disappointed, but Amerika, despite this and the missing chapters, is still a success in my books.
"Imperious, choleric, irascible, extreme in everything, with a dissolute imagination the like of which has never been seen... there you have me in a nutshell, and kill me again or take me as I am, for I shall not change."
From his Last Will & Testament, Marquis de Sade