book-reviews

Amerika

by Franz Kafka

Rating: ★★

Amerika is my second Kafka novel, and with Metamorphosis included it'd be the third piece of his work that I've read. While it's always been clear that his work has a certain fatalistic dreamlike quality to it, Amerika is the first thing I've read which was clearly a nightmare, with the unfortunate side-effect that it was also a nightmare to read.

The story, so much as there is one, focuses on a young Karl's immigration to the United States and his subsequent attempts to make sense of this world and find gainful employment. His efforts are frustrated by the erratic behaviour of authority figures, the speedy passage of time, and his self-imposed system of etiquette.

To demonstrate: on arrival, Karl is taken in by his uncle, who initially provides generously for him. One night, a friend of Karl's uncle invites Karl to come visit him. Karl asks his uncle's permission, which is given, and then accepts. The resulting coach journey to this friend's house takes half a day, and when Karl gets there another friend of his uncle's takes up his host's attention. After a series of bewildering incidents, including multiple uncompleted attempts to go to bed and to get up, Karl finds out that his uncle was gravely offended by his acceptance of the offer of a visit, and is now kicking him out -- never to see him again -- with only the possessions he arrived with.

Much like any nightmare, the focus is more on an emotion than on any degree of sense. The story rambles back and forth, details being brought up at inopportune times. The key emotion seems to be frustration, which is communicated all too well -- I was perpetually irritated while reading the book, by the failure of its characters to make sense, by the strange impulsive decisions of the protagonist and his inability to see or act on obvious solutions to his problems. I had flashes of this reaction with The Trial, until I placed a framework of allegory around the story, but no such framework appeared for Amerika. There are themes, of maturation, of dealing with authorities, but nothing that solidified into an acceptable explanation for the nightmare.

Like most of Kafka's work, this story is unfinished. This fits fine with the idea that the story is a dream, interrupted by the author or the reader awakening. There would be no way to create a satisfying conclusion. The star rating for this book is very difficult to place. While I think the story is successful and artful, I really didn't like it -- even writing this review some time after reading, the memory makes my blood boil. Maybe that's the point, maybe it's a skillful rendition of frustration, but gah!