Friday 7 December 2012

Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

A masterful mix of horror and absurdity which tells the story of travelling salesman Samsa who wakes up one day to find out he has turned into a giant insect. This change in circumstances makes his previous way of life impossible and causes his family to turn on him. "Metamorphosis" is one of the most remarkable stories ever written. Kafka's surrealistic approach shocks us into a new appreciation of a basic truth: when we have outlived our usefulness there are no longer any certainties. But there are many different levels on which to understand events. 
Amazon description

We writers are told to start our books with a killer opening paragraph which will hook the reader. There are few books whose opening sentences are as good as this one. In my translation (by Karen Reppin) it reads When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from troubled dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous insect. In that one sentence we capture the surreal situation that triggers the story.

I read this book while in my Czech house and I was surprised by how Czech it is. Much is made of the fact that Kafka was a German-speaking/writing Jew living in Prague, but I was struck by a dark surreal humour that pervades the story, which seems very Czech to me. Kafka isn't usually associated with humour but it definitely is there in this book - for example Gregor's reaction to his metamorphosis is not "Oh my god I've been turned in to a monster bug," but "I'm going to be late for work." I could see that scene (in fact the whole story) being performed by Monty Python.

The story is nevertheless a sad one, as we know the best humour also has that edge of tragedy. Gregor has been used as a meal ticket by his family, but once the transformation takes place he is ignored and despised. Arguably Gregor's social and emotional metamorphosis started when he had to give up his dreams and identity to serve his family. Only his sister continues to show some affection, but by the time the story finishes she too has undergone a transformation and not for the better. Gregor's continued concern for his family despite his affliction counterpoints what the reader sees to be the reality. The story could be seen as an allegory for how people who are suddenly unable to work, whether through accident, illness or misfortune, are treated by our society. An allegory painfully relevant in these times of cutbacks to welfare and healthcare.

But the allegory can be taken to mean many things. The exact translation of the opening sentence refers not to an insect but "einem ungeheuren Ungeziefer" which literally means "unclean animal not suitable for sacrifice". Only later does the cleaning lady refer to Gregor as a dung beetle. What the German word Ungeziefer sums up is Gregor's own alienation and possibly Kafka's own. Ungeziefer was a term used by the Nazis of Jews, and  the novella was published in 1915 when anti-semitism was already rife in the Austro-Hungarian Empire of which Czechoslovakia was part. Towards the end of the novella his sister argues that the family must get rid of it (Gregor) "If it were Gregor, he would have realized long since that it isn't possible for human beings to live together with such a creature". The permutations on interpretation for this books are endless. That is what makes this such a great novel.

And is the book magic realism? Yes most definitely - Gregor's metamorphosis is not explained or seen as remarkable, it just is. Is it influential - you bet - it not only influenced the magic realist writers that followed him, but all those movies such as The Fly in which man is transformed into another creature.

See also my post on Kafka's Prague

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