Born in Prague in 1883, Franz Kafka’s passion was literature and writing, though it was merely a pursuit on the side away from his day job working with the state insurance company. This book is a collection of all of Kafka’s writings that were published during his lifetime (there were other works published posthumously – though apparently he burned 90% of his writings). It is a collection of mostly short stories ranging from a few paragraphs to 60 pages or so. Kafka is credited with spearheading the existentialist writing style that would be taken up by the likes of Albert Camus a couple decades after Kafka’s death from tuberculosis.
Though bizarre at times, these stories are engaging in their symbolism and character interactions. Metamorphosis is about a young man who wakes up one day as a giant bug. His parents and his sister discover him and keep him locked away in his room, feeding and watering him, until he eventually dies, presumably from loneliness. Much of Kafka’s writing deals with tension with father figures – apparently Franz had daddy issues.
The Country Doctor is yet another bizarre, almost dream-like tale with nonsensical actions and characters (a man bites a woman’s face as he’s trying to kiss her… the doctor is stripped naked and forced to lie in bed with a dying boy with a fatal wound in his side)… After continually re-reading passages, I finally looked up the plot summary on wikipedia, only to come to find out I really was following along as well as possible.
Perhaps the most engaging and disturbing story was In the Penal Colony. Here a visitor from a far away country is invited to witness an execution of a condemned prisoner. The officer in charge is very proud of the torture/execution device that uses a series of needles to engrave a message repeatedly over the condemned man’s entire body, slowly rotating him, and maximizing his pain until death comes at about the 12th hour. The visitor is horrified to learn of the whole procedure. The officer in charge knows the winds of change are coming since the new prison commandant disapproves. Realizing this, he tries to appeal to the visitor to keep the procedure going, but when his plea is rebuffed and his cause is helpless, he frees the the prisoner and takes his place on the torture device. After the machine begins its work, it begins to break apart, sending cogs and bolts flying everywhere, and driving the needles through the body of the officer – I know, I told you it was bizarre.
Bottom line: These stories would probably be great to discuss with english teachers like Ron Coia, or perhaps people on drugs.
One last nugget, apparently there is a Metamorphosis movie that came out this year based off of Kafka’s story. Here’s the trailer: