Franz Kafka

Image: Elyeser Szturm

By Sergio Sant'Anna*

Review of Narratives of the estate, posthumous book by the Czech author.

Faced with such lapidary, qualitatively admirable and absolutely unique texts that make up the volume Narrative of the estate, by Franz Kafka, the reviewer is faced with a dilemma: what to say about these short stories that is not an impoverishing discourse of those others that gave rise to his analysis? Perhaps then one can be humble to the limit of the obvious: Kafka's writing is the only one possible to describe his universe refractory to interpretations, especially the most elementary ones such as the allegorist of the absurd, since, in addition to making use of a logic Raised to paroxysm, the Czech author was infinitely more than the creator of allegories or parables.

And it would be very inappropriate to say that his literature symbolizes something that is not found in itself. For this reason, it will be necessary to cite fragments of their narratives a few times in this review.

Like his dog in “A Dog's Investigations”, a piece included in this book, Kafka wrote to, without ever reaching conclusions, literally investigate the limits of human language and thought. Interestingly – and unlike the two others who, like him, make up the excellent modern trinity, James Joyce and Marcel Proust – he used, in such a procedure, a radical syntactic and semantic simplicity and conciseness, but thereby demonstrating that all human ideas and meanings are absolutely slippery, you can't trust anything. This idea can be exemplified in half a sentence of the principle of “Defense Lawyer” (a mini The process); “It was not at all right that I had a defender, in that regard I could not know anything precisely…”.

In fact, nothing can be known precisely in Kafka's narratives, nor did he know, he just explored, to see where it would lead, which was simultaneously everywhere and nowhere, although he often used, along with humor and paradoxes, a categorical tone to describe helplessness, perdition, the labyrinth, as in this small excerpt from “On the Question of Laws” (another mini The process): “Our laws are not universally known, they are the secrets of the small group of nobles who dominate us. We are convinced that these old laws are exactly observed…”.

I don't think I'm exaggerating when I call Kafka a comedian, and it almost goes without saying that the great, more sophisticated comedy is solemn in tone, and therefore more hilarious. A contained hilarity, which takes us internally. And one of the funniest tales from this collection that Kafka's friend Max Brod saved from literary suicide is "The Couple," which begins simply: "The general state of affairs is so bad that sometimes, when we have time to spare, in the office, I take the sample folder myself to visit customers in person”.

And, on this visit, the character-narrator will not only try to sell his products to a seriously ill customer at his home, but his commercial speech will take place in the room of such a gentleman, who ends up dying, falsely, and finally retires to the bed with the adult son, also sick. Were it not for a chronological issue, someone more abused could even say that another great Jewish comedian, Groucho Marx, in some of his most characteristic lines, despite all his excesses, would have been influenced by Kafka.

It was also with a very particular sense of humor, and very briefly, that the writer also addressed myths, such as Prometheus (whom he ended up reducing to the emptiness of the rocks) and Poseidon. As for the latter, he did not escape the theme of bureaucracy, so close to Kafka: “Poseidon was sitting at his desk and doing sums. The administration of all the waters gave him endless work”.

Among the larger pieces there is the superlogical, surreal-expressionist digression, “During the Construction of the Wall of China”, a wall that could also serve, it is suspected, as a model for the foundations of the Tower of Babel. “A wall that does not even form a circle, but a kind of quarter or half of a circle, should it offer the foundations of a tower? This could only be understood in a spiritual sense.”

From the same tale we can draw other samples for a divergent, very singular, parabolic logic in reverse. Almost koans, which can lead to enlightenment, more for Lao Tse than for Mao Tse: “Try with all your strength to understand the determinations of the command, but up to a certain limit, then stop thinking”; or; "We Chinese have certain popular and state institutions of unparalleled clarity, and others, in turn, of unique lack of clarity."

Among the 31 stories in the book, some will integrate Kafka's much-loved bestiary and, along these lines, "Investigations of a Dog" is perhaps one of the author's most perfect stories and one of his most hermetic, the first-person narrative of this dog who vainly seeks answers to his concerns in science. And, being one of the texts that can least be reduced to meanings, it is one that contains the most possible meanings, all the meanings, in fact, and there is something desolate and all too human, tragicomic, in this solemn dog, a first degree relative of the monkey who turns into a human being in “A Report for an Academy”, included in the book a country doctor, also re-released by Companhia das Letras and with the same impeccable translation by Modesto Carone.

Disconcerting, perhaps even for Kafka, is the short story “Blumfeld, a Middle-aged Bachelor”, in which the title character, who reflects on the advantages and disadvantages of coming to own a pet dog, sees his home invaded by two persecutory celluloid balls, which he manages to get rid of with great difficulty to go to work. Evidently, despite the fact that it is a sin to speak of any symbolism, there is an evident connection, affinity, between these invasive little balls and Blumfeld's life as a bachelor, his work as a bureaucrat in a clothing factory, made hellish by two apprentices. And the tale ends in an anticlimactic prefect, as if he faints.

But this review should end, if not with a kind of climax, then with a highlight, a reference to a short story, which is one of the episodes in Kafka's literature in which the apparently hardened author seems to lower his guard to introduce something very close to the what is conventionally called feelings, emotions. It is “Um Cruzamento”, a story in which the character-narrator inherited from his father a pet, half kitten, half lamb, which, sometimes, sniffing and sliding between the legs of its owner, “almost wants to , moreover, a dog”. And one day, when the protagonist is doing badly on business, sitting at home, in the rocking chair, the animal on his lap, when he lowers his eyes, he notices that tears are dripping from the immense hairs of his beard. “Were they mine, were they his? Did that cat with the soul of a lamb also have human ambitions?”.

There is in “Um Cruzamento” a melancholy, a poignancy that can be seen as the very condition of existence from Kafka's perspective, and for which not even an act of mercy becomes possible: “Perhaps a solution for this animal would be the butcher's knife, but I have to refuse it because it is my inheritance. It is necessary, therefore, that the breath of the animal disappears spontaneously, however much it looks at me with sensible human eyes that incite an act of common sense”.

Sergio Sant'Anna (1941-2020), writer, was a professor at the School of Communications at UFRJ. Author, among others, of 50 short stories and three novels (Companhia das Letras).


Franz Kafka. Narratives of the Estate (1914-1924). Translation: Modesto Carone. Companhia das Letras, 224 pages (

Originally published on Journal of Reviews no. 89, 14/09/2020.

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