Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Book Review - The Missing Person

The great Neil Simon once wrote that words with a “k” in it are funny. While I’m quite sure he didn’t have Kafka in mind, it’s surprisingly ironic that the master of existential anguish also displays an amazing degree of humor throughout this, his first major novel which he began working on in 1912.

With a new translation based on a restored text by Mark Harmon and published by Shocken, it’s a work that foreshadowed his later novels, which are filled with a series of strange and psychologically peculiar personal encounters.

Where it differs, is in the protagonist, Karl Rossman. Unlike Joseph K. in The Trial or K in The Castle, Karl possesses an innocent naivety that gives him a picaresque desire to get up, dust himself off and continue onward in his American quest. But Kafka never actually saw America and this rendition is an imagined expedition. Still, it’s a journey that, unlike his other work, ends on a theme of, well, optimism. Interestingly, one of Kafka’s key sources for American culture was Benjamin Franklin’s uplifting, can-do, and spirited autobiography.

Structurally Kafka’s tale is written in long, continuous paragraphs that don’t give the reader a chance to catch their breath. It is this trajectory that lends a sense of existential thrownness that steers Karl forward adding to a spiraling momentum that continuously lands him into one tense scene after another.

No incident demonstrates this more than when he is being forced to become a servant to Brunelda (an obese woman who puts one in mind of Shirley Stoler’s commandant character in Wertmuller’s Seven Beauties.)

Originally titled The Missing Person, Amerika was published posthumously in 1927, three years after the author’s death. But it was his good friend and executor, Max Brod who renamed it, branding it with the ominous “k” letter. That sense of “Kafkaesque” doom is captured in the very first paragraph, when Karl sails into New York harbor and sees the Statue of Liberty brandishing a sword, instead of a torch.

This latest version aims to provide the reader with an original understanding of Kafka, by omitting many of Brod’s alterations by infusing the story with a closer rendition of the original literal title's translation of Der Verschollene or The Man Who Disappeared.

Because the latter chapters are fragmentary, this translation provides a feeling of literary archaeology. And while incomplete, the ending describes Karl’s joy in encountering the Theater of Oklahoma along with a magnificent train ride.

With its wide-open landscape, we envision a new beginning--the perfect setting to start on a new understanding of Mr. Kafka.