To have an –esque after your name is so unusual that only one such name comes to mind. However, there’s nothing Kafkaesque about No 22 Golden Lane, a tiny row house- turned- into- a shop, in a colourful alley behind St Vitus’s Cathedral inside Prague Castle. What sets it apart from other souvenir shops, to its left and right, is that it was once the house of a woman named Ottilie. And what sets Ottilie (Ottla) apart from other women is that she had a brother named Franz. Franz Kafka.
The Kafkas were Jewish – a minority community in Bohemia in the late 19th – early 20th century. The fact that they spoke German (rather than Czech), and that Franz had a rather ambiguous relationship with the Jewish faith, enhanced the sense of isolation that is a hallmark of his writing. Kafka’s work, highly autobiographical in its themes, is frequently about The Other and the dehumanization of the Other – a reason why his stories presaged the horrors of the Holocaust. For example, In the Penal Colony (written exactly one hundred years ago), the story, told from the point of view of a Traveler, is about a complicated torture machine, the Harrow, that kills the ‘guilty’ by engraving their sentence on their flesh with a metal stylus.
Franz, born on July 3, 1883, was the eldest – and the only surviving son –among six children, Ottla being the youngest. The Kafka family home and business were in the Jewish Quarter of the Prague’s Old Town. Papa Hermann retailed men’s and women’s clothing. (The business logo was a bird, kavka, Czech for jackdaw.) The Kafkas, father and son, shared a fraught relationship, largely because the former had a domineering, tyrannical nature. Emotional alienation, oppression, claustrophobia, foreboding and fear permeate Kafka’s stories – giving him what probably no other author has got, an adjective of his own. Kafkaesque describes a situation or atmosphere that is repressive or nightmarish, in a manner characteristic of the fictional world of Kafka. Metamorphosis – also known as The Bug Story – typically begins with what is, perhaps, the most fantastic opening line ever written: As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found him himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. This story alone has been, and will continue to be, the inspiration for film makers, theatre directors, musicians and writers, who ponder on the meaning of becoming and being, reinvent it, relocate it across time and space, generation after generation.
What is it that makes Kafka’s fiction so popular nearly a century after it was written? Like the best stories, his stories, too, are ‘experiences’. They evoke, in simple, even dry language, powerful feelings such as despair, loneliness, fear, confusion and guilt which resonate in the reader probably because these very same feelings are generated in us by the lives we live today. Haven’t we all felt, at some time or the other, misunderstood, maligned and, worse, persecuted? Haven’t we come across people whose world-view is scary? Doesn’t TV watching sometimes give one the feeling that what one is seeing has no connection with one’s reality? Aren’t there days when newspaper headlines make no sense? Don’t we all know what filling forms and waiting in a queue – at the Visa office, at the bank – feels like? Hasn’t one tried and, sometimes, failed to work a ticket machine in a language one does not know? Life sucks, Kafka seems to say, but in a way we have no one else to blame but ourselves for our predicament. Gregor Samsa turns into an insect because the life he leads day after day as a travelling salesman, scurrying from town to town, catching train after train, is not all that different from the life of an insect. It is, in fact, Life As We Know It.
This may sound grim, but Kafka’s writing is not without humour. His style, crisp, dry, understated, is uber cool. It is quintessential Irony. Less is More. The joke is frequently on oneself, but it is a form of revenge, a gallows humour kind of survival tactic, in which the victim has the laugh, though it is probably his last one.
There’s nothing quite like dysfunctional relationships to make one appreciate the irony of life. Typically, Kafka was engaged several times but never married anyone. Despite having a dad who did not understand his artistic nature, he lived at home till the age of 31. He moved out later to his own rented room, but the hustle-bustle of the street below would send him rushing off for peace and quiet to Ottla’s little house on Golden Lane, and this was where the collection The Country Doctor was penned.
Kafka’s footprints are to be found all over Prague: the house where he was born ( though only the door remains from the original), the different homes in which he lived, the building that housed his school, the synagogue he visited, the university he attended, the café where he used to hang out with friends. It is as if Prague is Kakfa and Kafka is Prague. In his stories, however, the city features subliminally. For instance, it is hard to connect the charming turrets and gleaming spires of Prague Castle with the surreal setting of his unfinished novel The Castle, a haunting tale that satirizes modern bureaucracy, much in the vein of the more famous story, The Trial, where an innocent man is arrested, prosecuted and sentenced to death for no reason, by an all-powerful authority.‘ Like a dog’ are his last words. Life’s a bitch and then you die. Kafka didn’t say it that way, but what he said was the same thing. More or less.
Typically, Kafka did not care for fame. And typically it came to him after his death at the age of 40, of tuberculosis in 1924. As a dying request to his friend Max Brod, he wrote: Everything I leave behind… to be burned unread. We are fortunate that his friend did nothing of the sort.