Honouring Franz Kafka: A Hundred-Year Legacy

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On 3 June, 1924, the prolific Czech author Franz Kafka, best known for The Metamorphosis, The Trial and The Castle, and whose inimitable literary style led to the term “Kafkaesque” being coined, died of laryngeal tuberculosis in a sanatorium near Vienna. Though he was only forty years old at the time, and several of his works had not yet been published, he would grow to be considered one of the most important writers of the twentieth century. One hundred years on from his death, Kafka lives on through the universality of his themes. 

Part of his appeal certainly derives from his ability to communicate in emotionally accessible terms. I was 16 when I first read The Metamorphosis, the nightmarish story of Gregor Samsa’s unfortunate transformation into a giant cockroach – and as a teenager, I felt seen. “I cannot make you understand,” Samsa says at one point. “I cannot make anyone understand what is happening inside me. I cannot even explain it to myself.” In one short passage, Kafka summarised my teenage angst. 

But part of his appeal also comes from the borderlessness and timelessness of his themes. When I moved to pre-Brexit England to study literature and creative writing, I found myself through Kafka again, this time in Amerika. Like Karl, I had taken the ferry. Like Karl, I found myself in a foreign land punctuated by foreign rules. People drove on the left. They followed the imperial system. And when I had the audacity to ask where the pants were at the GAP, I was asked: “Do you mean trousers?” Of course, my life was considerably more comfortable than Karl’s – the friends I made were a warmer bunch than Robinson and Delamarche, and I was never forced to sleep on a balcony – but the displacement Kafka described was one and the same.

Later yet, Kafka’s exclusion from a German literature module prompted me to temporarily shun Mann, Zweig and Döblin in favour of an anthology of Kafka’s short stories. I arrived at “A Hunger Artist,” the tale of an artist who puts his hunger on display around the time when a close relative was hospitalised for anorexia. I read the story again and again, desperate to find any pearl of wisdom Kafka might have to offer, but its protagonist remained as confused as Samsa. “Try explaining the art of hungering to someone!” he says at one point. Anorexia may not be an art, but I learned to accept that there are certain things you can never fully understand.

Most recently, my return to Belgium, my homeland, after several years abroad has repeatedly brought to mind passages of The Trial and The Castle. Seemingly simple things take on a herculean complexity in these parts. The theoretical driver’s exam is so arcane that it could have been written around the time when Kafka died. The town hall is perpetually closed. And of course, no one is responsible. One bureaucrat points the finger at the next who points the finger at the next, and much like Joseph K., all we can do is follow.

In his ability to speak to our shared humanity, regardless of race, gender, age or creed, Kafka has and will always have an important place in the literary canon. And in these uncertain times, as wars wage on every continent, financial inequalities continue to grow, and profound unease seem to be the norm, we would do well to heed him. Kafka’s oeuvre has much to teach us!

Words by Elkyn Ernst


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