The word ‘Kafkaesque’ has firmly entered our language, although it is hard to give it any direct definition. When we say ‘Kafkaesque’ we mean that something looks like it comes directly from one of classic works by Franz Kafka – and it is about as far as we can go. It combines many shades and completely unrelated things. In short, the list of characteristic features of ‘Kafkaesque’ world is as follows:
- All-pervading bureaucracy turning into a horror in its right.
- Dream-like quality.
- Helplessness of the main character who seems to be the only relatively sane person in otherwise mad world.
- Angst, anxiety, fear.
A Kafkaesque Take on Kafka’s Life
The new book by Jay Kantor, ‘Forgiving the Angel’, aspires to be exactly this – a Kafkaesque story about Kafka. Or rather not Kafka himself, but several people who have been close to him: his best friend Max Brod who became famous after disagreeing to fulfill Kafka’s will and burn his writings after the writer’s death, Kafka’s lover Dora Diamant, who stayed with him until his death of tuberculosis, his earlier love interest, Milena Jesenska, and several others.
The book is a collection of four stories about these people written in a manner trying to imitate all the notable characteristics of Kafka’s prose: attention to details, bizarre, unreal events wrapped up in nightmarish bureaucratic world and so on. And to a certain degree the author seems to be pulling the trick off. However, one can’t help but think that the world Kafka and his friends lived in was horrible and Kafkaesque enough without adding anything to it. And that is, sadly, what Jay Kantor does– he tries to embellish what doesn’t need embellishments.
In his attempt to make his writing more ‘literary’ he includes in it some elements that just don’t belong to the definition of Kafkaesque, such as melodrama and sentimentality. Kafka himself was known to consider the tribulations of his characters to be deeply (if extremely darkly) humorous. He would have hardly appreciated such inclusions into the story of his life.
It is not the first time Jay Kantor tries to do something like this. Back in 1988 he published “Krazy Kat: A Novel in Five Panels”, in which he took the famous newspaper cartoon and based a novel on it. And it was to some extent similar to his latest literary experiment – it began as a brilliant extrapolation of the story and characters through an unusual medium, but in process it devolved in something else entirely – the author became too fascinated with his own ideas and thoughts and concentrated on them, forgetting what made the book what it should have been.
But all in all, ‘Forgiving the Angel’ is a viable attempt at Kafkaesque; and anything that reminds us of the great writer is probably a good thing.