Kafka, Borges and, out of the corner of your eye, Barthes

Image: Marcelo Guimarães Lima


Reflections provoked by books out of sequence

I notice on my bookshelf that two titles by Franz Kafka appear with numbers out of sequence. The spines of the collection translated by Modesto Carone should go from 1 to 9, but book 1 ignores this order — in its place, volume 3 is fixed. In other words: at the front, The process, rather than To metamorphose. And letter to father separate them arithmetically: 3; two; 2.

I am uneasy about the exchange, although I endorse the numerical irregularity, agreeing that the pages that contain Josef K. should appear, on the shelf, before the pages that host Gregor Samsa. I think about the fate of these heroes who…

I hold back the “what” and the trigger for reasoning due to this unusual coincidence: Fictions, by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Davi Arrigucci Jr., is located in an inappropriate space. By some incident the book would have escaped from the niche that houses it (don't think that the Argentinean's short stories and essays are in a corner close to that reserved for his Spanish-American compatriots – I wish I had the pedagogical sense of the organization). Jorge Luis Borges is at the other end of the shelf, far from the literature of García Márquez and Júlio Cortázar, meanwhile glued to the production of Roland Barthes. In fact, from the position I am in, I can clearly see a Barthesian cover, red, whose black letters spell with capital letters THE RUMOR OF THE LANGUAGE.

I'm looking for a justification for why the displaced position of the brochures and the shuffling of digits give me a feeling of strangeness. I might not even have paid attention to this incident if my brothers and nephews hadn't come to visit us – lots of conversation and wine throughout the night. This is it: wine merged with the spines of Kafka, Borges and, out of the corner of the eye, Barthes.

As soon as my guests say goodbye, they leave through the ground floor of the house, where the library is; and after passing the padlock to the inner lock of the wooden door, move along the side of the bookshelf and finally contemplate the titles refractory to their original positions; and after my failure in drafting a proposition about the two Kafkaesque narratives, I surrender to the sofa and fall asleep.

Gregor Samsa

In this state, I recover Gregor and Josef K.. I revisit them, returning to that fateful and unique morning at the beginning of the XNUMXth century, when the traveling salesman awakens metamorphosed in his room, in the family home, and when the other character, in a rented dormitory at a boarding school – it's his birthday –, he jumps out of bed and notices the presence of four men, the automaton spokesmen of the law.

Absurd images, in a chain, impose themselves on me. The first absurdity occurs when Grete, Gregor's sister, enters Josef K.'s bedroom: she plays a violin, paying homage to him for turning 30 years old. I warned her that the gentlemen among us were as nasty as her father's three tenants, the bearded ones. The quartet entrusted the poor bank employee with a court summons devoid of any and all legitimacy, demanding that he be present in court on Sunday for questioning.

Grete remains silent – ​​perhaps she hadn't heard my considerations. The four men, however, leave the place, bowing their heads mechanically towards me. I refer to Kafka's protagonist who, sitting on the edge of the bed, looks at the young woman with manly interest. In my critical innocence, I say to him, “I think The process, written between 1914 and 1915, can be included as volume 1 of my series. After all, the insult and misfortune that fall on you pave the way for the zoomorphic outbreak of Grete's brother. Therefore Gregor should succeed him.”

And, without success in articulation, I transmit from memory this statement by Theodor Adorno, inscribed in “Notes on Kafka” and bundled in Prisms: “Kafka searches with the magnifying glass for the traces of dirt left by the fingers of power in the sumptuous edition of the book of life.”[I] I wanted to assess the autocratic State as an oppressive apparatus, determining the misfortunes of the fabric seller and the employee of the commercial establishment.

At the end of my speech, I discovered that Grete was no longer in the room – Mrs. Grubach was there; and the one who listened to me, with his legs crossed, was the actor Anthony Perkins from the feature film The Trial, directed by Orson Welles. I wanted to tell him about the richness of this adaptation and praise him effusively for his performance in Psychosis, in order to encourage him to talk about the filming process and Hitchcock. It happens that the dream scene changes and the question is not effective.

Sunday arrived and Josef K. spoke in the hall of the Court of Justice. This is how I see it and, without asking permission, I imitate it, shouting among men who are evasive of our speech. In the crowd, I impose my voice and quote the Frankfurt School thinker again: “There is no system without residue. By contemplating it, Kafka prophecies the future.”[ii] I continue with Teodhor Adorno: “A curse weighs on Kafka's space: the subject closed in on himself holds his breath, as if he could not touch that which is not like himself”.[iii] I freely abandon Josef K. and go looking for Gregor.

However, I lack the courage to enter his darkroom in Prague. I fear the casing – nor do I want to inhale the man-animal's trace; I'm terrified of the possibility of, in the pitch black, unpreparedly feeling the adhesive glue impregnated on the floor and walls. It is possible that this disgust comes from the myth ingrained in me that The passion according to GH; I will never forget the sudden illness of Clarice Lispector's heroine, testifying: “No, it wasn't fainting. It was more like vertigo.” The narrator refuses to “pass her hand over her lips and notice traces”.[iv] Yes… the terror of the certainty that I had tasted the cockroach juice — the underworld, the dungeon.

Jorge Luis Borges

A mosaic invades me: quadrilaterals rectangles triangles rhombuses curves galleries paintings Titorelli easels stairs corridors hexagons shelves books library babel Borges. A door opens and I reach a backyard with a balcony. Night falls and the memorable Irineu Funes – fragile, with a singular appearance – is in that misty garden. I would be able to say that someone accompanies him. Wild plants block my view, and cigarette smoke rises.

The Borgian character – owner of a largely encyclopedic anomaly – moves in my dream to a tiny room. Here she appears to me stretched out on the bed. At this moment I doubt whether it is in fact Josef K. the guy who establishes a certain dialogue with Funes; This is because the appearance of Kafka's protagonist no longer matches that of the individual on whom the forensic complaint falls. Ironically, the man there is a replica of Ulrich Mühe, the German actor who played surveyor K. in the film The castle.

The space appears as one of the cubicles in which Frieda's lover, close to the end of the novel, whispers to Bürgel in a room intended for the care of the castle's administrative employees (occasionally they work in bed). In this episode, K. appears deeply exhausted. Sitting on the edge of the bed, he is overcome by sleep and lets his head fall little by little, as he encourages himself to understand the murmur of his interlocutor. Staggering, he “by chance grabs Bürgel’s foot that was sticking out from under the blanket. Bürgel looked there and left the foot for him, however uncomfortable it might be.”[v]

Only at that time do I notice that there is a third party in the room; near the door, with a notebook and cigarette in the corner of his mouth, is the author of the sound of the tongue. I think I asked him what he was doing there. In response, he would have said that he appropriated the whispering conversation between Borges' character and that of the Jewish writer to recreate it in the novel he would publish. Roland Barthes behaved like a voyeur.

What comes to my mind is this introductory excerpt from his essay: “Babble is a twice-marked message: on the one hand, it is misunderstood; but, on the other hand, with effort, one comes to understand despite everything; It is truly neither in the language nor outside it: it is a noise of language comparable to the sequence of noises by which an engine gives the impression that it is poorly regulated (…).”[vi] Wake up.

I wake up to the sound of a car engine. My son parks it in front of the gate and opens the garage. I get up from the sofa and refuse to put Kafka's books 1 and 3 in fair succession, and take Fictions to the appropriate shelf.

I turn off the library light and climb two flights of stairs. It's past midnight. It's hot. I first go to the bedroom and put on short pajamas. My wife, in the bathroom, removes her makeup; I brush my teeth. She scolds me because she found my bath towel out of place, but in reward, she says that my new Hawaiians match the color of my shorts. I smile and return to the room hoping to recover my dream.

* Ricardo Iannace He is a professor in the postgraduate program in Comparative Studies of Portuguese Language Literatures at FFLCH-USP. Author, among other books, of Murilo Rubião and the architectures of the fantastic (edusp). [https://amzn.to/3sXgz77]


[I] Theodor W. Adorno, “Notes on Kafka”. In: Prisms: cultural criticism and society. Translation: Augustin Wernet and Jorge MB de Andrade, São Paulo, Ática, 1998, p. 252.

[ii] Ditto, p. 253.

[iii] Idem, ibidem, p. 259.

[iv] Clarice Lispector, The passion according to GH, Rio de Janeiro, Editora do Autor, 1964, p. 167.

[v] Franz Kafka, The castle. Translation: Modesto Carone. São Paulo, Companhia das Letras, 2017, p. 398-9.

[vi] Roland Barthes, “The Rumor of Language”. In: the sound of the tongue. Translation: Mario Laranjeira. São Paulo, Brasiliense, 1988, p. 92.

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