On the 24th January 1913, the Czech-German author Franz Kafka stopped writing “Amerika”. This would be his last novel, and it remained unfinished. The uncompleted book, however, is a haunting memorial to a reluctant and enigmatic writer who after his untimely death epitomised the cruel absurdities of the human condition. A word was even created, “Kafkaesque” to describe the frequently stifling and oppressive situations that characterise human life.
“Amerika” is, on the surface, a simple narrative about a young man sent abroad to live with his uncle. He is sent to America as his parents are scandalised by his love affair with a young woman who is now expecting his child. However there is a deeper meaning beneath the surface story, chiefly there is a running theme about liberty and the author questions whether the concept of freedom actually exists in reality.
The main protagonist, Karl Rossman, is just sixteen years old and from a humble Central European country. He has rarely ventured outside his home village and has never been abroad. The veracity of his relationship with his pregnant girlfriend is cast aside as he is forced on to the ship bound for America. This is the country of liberty, exemplified by the statue at New York Harbour. His life as a poor European immigrant is harsh and unforgiving. He accepts a menial job as a lift attendant at a prestigious hotel but is disillusioned and degraded. He finds companionship, and promise of better work, but in rather tragicomic circumstances, in a travelling circus.
The circus seems a rather apt metaphor for humiliation and disappointment, something that the author experienced in his short and painful life. Franz Kafka was born in Prague, in 1883 to Jewish parents. His mother and father worked in fashion retail and were often absent owing to the demands of the family business. Kafka felt controlled by his father throughout his life, and uncertain of his future plans decided to train as a lawyer to please him.
Kafka met Max Brod at law school. Brod shared the same interests and had a similar outlook on life. Both were voracious readers and had secret literary ambitions. However law provided a steady income and once qualified he began work in an insurance office.
It is remarkable that in spite of the long and punishing hours he spent working, he still found time to write. However it wasn`t long before he became stricken with tuberculosis, and he spent the rest of his life in sanatoriums. He died in 1924. He was only 40 years old, was unmarried and left no descendants.
His feelings of shame and inadequacy, both personal and professional, were imbued in his writing. He had long love affairs with women but was convinced that he was physically inadequate and lacked charm. His mundane job also left him feeling that his life had no meaning.
He had no confidence in his writing ability, and he destroyed a large proportion of it. He also instructed Max Brod to burn all of his manuscripts after his death, but Brod refused that request. He published several of his works between 1925 and 1935, and as the Nazis rose to power in Europe he secreted the rest in a suitcase before escaping to Palestine in 1939. “Brod`s Editions” of Kafka`s work grew in popularity, especially after the horrific events of the Second World War and were a major influence on modern writers.
Kafka`s life was rooted in Central Europe, in a lower middle class Jewish family, but his literary vision is universal. It is astonishing that he had never visited the USA but his depictions are eerily accurate. His imagination and empathy was profound and it is the reason behind his international literary legacy that continues to endure.