By Franz Kafka.
New York: New Directions Paperbacks, 1946
298 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
December 2001

I found this to be a difficult novel to think of as by Franz Kafka's. My prior acquaintance with Kafka is with The Trial, The Castle and Metamorphosis. This book seems on the surface to be so different. There is a tone of lightness, airiness, even comedy. I found virtually none of these things in my other Kafka readings. Further, perhaps because I know so little about Prague of the early part of the twentieth century, Kafka seemed to know that world and could describe it with power for me. Here seems to have known relatively little about the United States of the period and there is an air of fantasy which is beyond even the surrealistic scenes in The Trial.

Fifteen year old Karl Rossmann immigrates to New York under duress. A family house maid seduced him and threatens a paternity suit. The unfinished semi-comic novel which follows is both similar to Kafka's other two unfinished novels, The Trial and The Castle, yet different in significant measure as well.

Karl undergoes six very bizarre experiences which are the typical Kafka mix of reality and fantastic other worldly imagination, often dark and threatening. Things just go sort of crazy, mysterious and zany, yet each episode is told with craft and art as though Kafka were writing a detailed biography. First on the ship Karl forgets his umbrella upon debarkation and ends up aiding a ship employee, a stoker, in making a case against his boss for maltreatment. All of this leads to Karl's meeting his uncle, a New York senator and super wealthy self-made man with whom Karl spends his first few months until disowned and driven out by his uncle in a crazy vengeful scene because Karl had gone to visit his uncle's friend against the senator's wishes.

He next ties into two utterly weird characters, Delamarche and Robinson, characters more out of Beckett than Kafka! These disreputable unemployed drifters semi-force him to walk two days out of New York in futile search for work. Karl is mysteriously rescued from the clutches of these two, at least for a few months, by the strange Manageress of a hotel who gets him a job as a lift boy. The motivation for her concern and aloof friendship and guidance is not only not clear, but seemingly purposely obscured, without even a decent hint at what it might be.

The hotel job comes crashing down in an unbelievable fantasy seemingly engineered by Delamarche who has emerged as a more powerful and sinister character than earlier. He effectively enslaves Karl to be the house boy for Delamarche's huge and rich paramour.

There is a gap in the story in which months have passed and Karl has somehow escaped the clutches of Delamarche and Robinson and is now free and seeking work. The final and most bizarre episode, a rather disconnected 26 page sketch concerns the surrealistic job-bureau fraud of The Nature Theatre of Oklahoma. Seemingly under the guise of offering people jobs in the theatre (no one is ever refused) it all seems to be a gimmick to lure unsuspecting folks to Oklahoma to fulfill menial jobs.

I learned a great deal about reading Kafka from this novel. I had never consciously realized it, but I had thought that some of the odd and bizarre things which happened in The Trial, The Castle and Metamorphosis were things that I didn't understand because I didn't know enough about the history and social structure of Prague's society at the time he was writing. But in this novel I came to realize that's not really an issue. In this case I do know much more than Kafka about what New York and the U.S. were like at the time of his story, yet it is all still as mysterious and other worldly as the other works I've read. It wasn't me who was wanting, nor is Kafka. He is just telling a different story than I had assumed. That having been said, part of the humor of Amerika is seemingly unintended and is rooted in Kafka's fantastic visions of what he seems to really have assumed the U.S. was like, filled with some of the worst sort of distortions which Europeans seemed to have had during this period.

Bob Corbett

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Bob Corbett