Stranger in a strange land

Ulin is book editor of The Times.

It’s always tricky when an author’s name becomes an adjective. Orwellian, Machiavellian, Faulknerian -- these designations make it hard to see a writer on his or her own terms. This is perhaps most true of Franz Kafka, whose sobriquet, Kafkaesque, has become a catchall for the weird and inexplicable.

Yet 84 years after his death of tuberculosis at age 40, Kafka continues to defy such simplifications, to force us to consider him anew. That’s the effect of Mark Harman’s new translation of his first novel, “Amerika,” restored to its original title, “The Missing Person.”

“Amerika” has long held an anomalous place among Kafka’s writings; it’s a comic anti-picaresque in which a young European named Karl Rossmann immigrates to the United States and undergoes a series of adventures, not so much finding as losing his way in the world. In this new version, Harman offers an unfiltered take on the novel, which was left unfinished when Kafka abandoned work on it in 1914.

This is important because, like much of Kafka’s writing, “Amerika” was cleaned up for its posthumous 1927 publication by Max Brod, the author’s literary executor. It’s tough to fault Brod for wanting to present his friend’s efforts in the most polished possible state, but his interventions only contributed to our difficulty in seeing Kafka for who he is.


It says a lot, after all -- as much, perhaps, as does his notorious reluctance to publish his work -- that none of Kafka’s three novels (this one, “The Castle” and “The Trial”) was finished. It speaks to his ambivalence, his own sense of incompletion. These issues mark his fiction, but we’ve been encouraged to read that work as emblematic of an amorphous, modern alienation rather than a personal worldview.

Here we have the “Kafkaesque” problem again. As an example, Harman cites the famous opening passage of “The Missing Person,” in which Karl arrives in New York and sees the Statue of Liberty for the first time. “The arm with the sword now reached aloft,” Kafka writes, “and about her figure blew the free winds.”

Over the years, that image has been framed as an error (Kafka never actually visited America) or a clue that “The Missing Person” is “a dream narrative.” Harman, though, convincingly argues that Kafka didn’t have any such thing in mind. “Just as it is impossible,” he points out, “to dismiss as a nightmare the perception of Gregor Samsa in ‘Metamorphosis’ that his body has been mysteriously transformed overnight into that of a bug (the text states quite unambiguously that ‘it was no dream’), we cannot simply explain away this surreal Statue of Liberty as a subjective perception of Karl Rossmann.”

So what was Kafka doing? What all novelists do, creating a fictional landscape that reflects their most deeply felt perceptions. This is the triumph of “The Missing Person,” that it echoes Kafka’s sense of menace -- or worse, of being misunderstood. Throughout the book, Karl is jeopardized by the misperceptions of others; from his uncle, an industrialist who disowns him for making an overnight visit against his wishes, to the head waiter at the elegant Hotel Occidental, who fires him from his job as an elevator boy after a mix-up over leaving his post.

To be fair, there is a dreamlike quality to these interactions; Karl moves from one thing to another with the passivity of a sleeper, as if he has no control. Early on, at the country house of his uncle’s friend Mr. Pollunder, he finds himself traversing an endless hallway, full of rooms that “stood empty, their only purpose being to make a hollow sound whenever anyone knocked.”

Later, he connects with the villainous Delamarche and his sidekick Robinson -- a pair of drifters who float through this novel like twisted versions of Mark Twain’s Duke and Dauphin -- only to end up trapped, unable to stir himself, in an apartment in a vast residential block.

Yet more than dreaming, what this brings to mind is the powerlessness of the individual. That’s the animating spirit of much of Kafka’s writing, but in “The Missing Person” -- unlike “The Trial,” with its vision of a monolithic legal bureaucracy in which we are all complicit -- society is not the issue. Instead, it’s Karl himself, a character with a specific biography, with history and aspirations and a sense of always standing on the outside.

The book, then, is the story of his banishment -- first from his home in Europe and then from his uncle’s house. Even at the Hotel Occidental, he literally cannot find a point of access until he meets the head cook, who “went to the buffet, pushed aside a guest, opened a hinged door in the counter, and with Karl in tow, crossed the corridor behind the counter . . . and opened a double door that had been covered with wall paper, and they were already inside the large cool pantries.”


Now, Karl understands: “You simply have to know the mechanism.” And yet, he never learns any such mechanism for gaining purchase in the world. Even in America, Karl remains alone, at the mercy of outside forces, unable to make a place for himself. This is the point precisely; the land of opportunity welcomes us not with a torch but with a terrible swift sword.

“The Missing Person” does close on an odd note of hope -- a chapter in which Karl signs on with the Theater of Oklahama (that’s how Kafka spelled it), a utopian outfit where everybody gets a job. Still, if Brod always claimed that Kafka meant to end the novel “in a conciliatory fashion,” Harman suggests something else.

"[I]n a diary entry of 29 September 1915,” he writes, “Kafka explicitly compared the fates of the heroes in ‘The Missing Person’ and ‘The Trial’: ‘Rossmann and K., the innocent and the guilty, both executed without distinction in the end.’ ” If that’s the case, the two-day train ride with which “The Missing Person” concludes seems almost prescient, a sign of what would soon face the Rossmanns of the world.

For all the implications of such a moment, what lingers is the novel’s fragmentation, its incompletion, the sense that Karl’s is a life in pieces, like so many of ours.


Here too we end up face to face with the author, not as metaphor but as human being. Who else, after all, is the missing person if not Kafka, who, like his character, felt himself a stranger in a strange land?