Often you hear people defining stories or styles as having a “Kafkaesque” quality; I’ve never really understood this because I’d never read any of Kafka’s work, until now. I’ve always shied away from his novels, assuming they would be full of grandiose themes, lofty writing and intellectualism far beyond my comprehension. However, I was surprisingly wrong. Kafka writes for the common man: his work is honest and accessible.
Franz Kafka was born in Prague to Jewish parents and spoke both German and Czech. He studied Law and worked at an insurance company for most of his adult life, while writing on the side. I love that he had a ‘day job’ and complained about it to anyone who would listen because he felt it was taking him away from his art. Most of us who work in the creative industry can definitely relate. In reading his work, it is evident Kafka’s way of life greatly impacted his writing. Being both writer/lawyer, with a foot firmly planted in two very different worlds, he discusses themes such as justice, retribution, isolation, loneliness, hopelessness, alienation and fear. His seminal work Metamorphosis stands as one such shining testament, not only of his talent as a writer but also as an indicator of his boundless imagination.
Metamorphosis is the story of travelling salesman, Gregor Samsa. Gregor lives with his parents and younger sister, working himself to the bone supporting his family. One ordinary morning, the extraordinary befalls Gregor and he wakes up transformed into a giant cockroach. What is interesting is his family’s reaction; their initial shock and despair, eventually dissipates into practicality and quasi-acceptance; his sister brings him rotting food and cleans his room to make things more comfortable for him. His aging father and mother decide it’s time to return to the workforce as they can no longer rely on Gregor to provide for them. In the meantime, Gregor subsists on very little, losing his appetite not only for food, but life. He cannot speak, is not understood and his new body is frustratingly restrictive.
Kafka writes with boldness, clarity and compassion. He makes the surreal and impossible seem perfectly believable. As a reader, you begin to forget that Gregor is a cockroach and start to focus on his experiences instead. Ultimately, Gregor encompasses all of the “strangeness” and “otherness” of an individual who doesn’t “fit in.” The success and longevity of Kafka’s Metamorphosis is due, in part, to the fact that most of us, at some stage have felt this way; not only as children in the playground but also as adults in this big, confusing world.
This novel is a literary triumph. Empathising with a cockroach is something I truly thought I would never say, but that is the magic of Kafka.
Book review by Annette Ong