In the 1972 Penguin version a friend of Franz Kafka’s Max Brod makes the comments that writing this book pleased Kafka and there were very few deletions and changes but he stopped writing it suddenly and it was left unfinished although the author did read out the passages about the Oklahoma theatre and had planned it to be a final chapter of reconciliation.
There is something rather difficult with a book that remains unfinished because you are left wondering how things would have developed to be given just fragments that then have the effect of making it harder. It would almost be easier if the book had petered out at the end of the section with Karl being a servant but you are left presuming that he became the trusted confidant of Brunelda the singer and then after that arrangement had ended stumbled across the Oklahoma theatre as a way to save himself and find his own part of the American dream.
Karl Rossmann has been sent to America from Europe by his parents after the 16 year old was seduced and then fathered a child by the housemaid. As the boat arrives in New York Karl has a stroke of luck that while defending a stoker to the captain he is introduced to his uncle a rich senator who takes him away and is in a position to offer him a life of luxury. But by accepting an invitation from a banker friend of his uncle’s Karl is cut off from his uncle and starts a transitory life that evolves around Robinson and Delamarche, two men he meets in an inn the first night he is alone. Although he has a couple of months as a lift boy in a hotel Karl eventually ends up with Robinson and Delamarche who have hooked up with a singer Brunelda and wait and dote on her respectively. Karl is introduced to her as a servant and initially fights the situation but then seems to accept it and it is at that point the main body of the book breaks off and following that there are fragments that lead you to believe he manages to get away from Robinson and Delamarche and then leaves New York altogether and joins the Oklahoma Theatre company.
Is it well written?
Although Kafka described this book as lighter than his others there is still a dark undercurrent running through it fuelled by the uncertainly caused by industrialisation on a mass scale. At the heart of it is the idea, and in this respect it reminds you a bit of Fear and Loathing by Hunter S. Thompson, about the quest for the American dream, which equates to success. But the twist added by Kafka is that those characters that should be content are in fact some of the most insecure so his uncle drops him just because he visits someone and the bankers he meets are almost unable to hold a normal conversation. The part of the American dream that Kafka displays most often is the violence that often accompanies the desire to be secure. It is not just on display with the head porter in the hotel, who is on the brink of assaulting Karl before he escapes, but also with the candidate for a judge position who’s electoral campaign ends in a brawl. Amerika moves along with the reader constantly asking questions of Karl and his environment and in that respect Kafka does achieve the aim of underlining the point that America is a different country with its own ways of working.
Should it be read?
In some ways this is an old fashioned book with the passages describing the numerous people doing the jobs that no would be done by one person or might even be automated. But for those readers interested in America’s industrial history then this along with the likes of The Jungle by Upton Sinclair and Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser adds to the picture of a rapidly evolving country where the gap between rich and poor is a wide one. Following on from something like The Trial this also adds to the Kafka style but at the same time shows that he was capable of setting his characters in different locations and with the glimpse of the final chapter able to conclude a book in a more upbeat way. So those wanting to get a feel for Kafka should pick this up because it is important to get the 360 view of his work and bypass the stereotype that all he was capable of producing was dark stories.
An expanding American economy seen through the eyes of a Czech immigrant who never quite grasps how to be a winner
Version read – Penguin Modern Classics