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When Kafka makes you laugh, KONUNDRUM, a new translation by Peter Wortsman published by Archipelago Books

Wednesday, November 2, 2016 9:23
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Kafka spoke for millions in their new unease; a century after his birth, he seems the last holy writer, and the supreme fabulist of modern man's cosmic predicament. –John Updike
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Why a new translation of Kafka?  Don't we already know The Castle, The Penal Colony, Metamorphosis, The Hunger Artist?  Perhaps we know too much about Kafka?

In KONUNDRUM: Selected Prose of Franz Kafka, translated from the German by Peter Wortsman, (Achipelago Books) I met a Kafka I had never known but long suspected. Wortsman has said Kafka laughed aloud, when reading his work, as did others. Not being a translator, I have imagined a direct line from Kafka's K to Philip K. Dick. I liked a production of The Hunger Artist, as a sporting event in Madison Square Garden. The laugh's not from the belly, but from the pained heart, especially ironic in our 21st century. 

Besides classics; Metamophosis retranslated as “Transformed,” The Penal Colony, The Hunger Artist; Wortsman selected  letters, journals, darkly comic parables, fairy tales, reflections, even aphorisms, This is the first volume in English to have Kafka's very humane personal letters and journal entrees alongside his major works, The result is that you get a unique sense of the writer's “voice,” who Kafka is, with little separation between the man and the writer.

Wortsman, who is both a fiction writer, and a translator, changed the way I think about Kafka. Along with ironic chuckles were surprised guffaws, as thoughts circle back to unexpected endings, like in “The Bridge.” For me “Transformed” (Metamorphosis) was a dark fantasy that moved to real and hard truth about human relationships. Then there is the wit, just for fun. Who would think of poor Poseidon, saddled with accountancy of the seas?  Here is an example from this volume.

THE BRIDGE by Franz Kafka

I was stiff and cold. I was a bridge. I lay over an abyss. With the tips of my toes on this side, my fingertips dug in yonder, I clung to the crumbling clay. My coattails dangled at my sides. The icy trout brook thundered below. No tourist ever strayed to this forbidding precipice, the bridge was not yet inscribed on any map.So I lay and waited. I had to wait.Barring collapse, no bridge once built can ever stop being a bridge.

Once toward evening–was it the first, was it the thousandth time, I don't know–my thoughts were always muddled, running in circles. One summer evening, the brook thundered darker than ever, I heard the sound of a man's footsteps!  Advancing toward me, toward me. Stretch yourself out, bridge, mend your rift, you rafter without sail, hold up the one entrusted to you! The uncertainty of his step levels off out of earshot, but if he falters make yourself useful, and like a mountain goat hurl him safely across.

He came, with the iron tip of his hiking pole he tested me out, then with it, raised my coattails and arranged them neatly on my torso. He jabbed the tip into my bushy head of hair, and probably peering wildly about, left it dug in. But then–I was just then dreaming of mountains and valleys–he leapt with both feet into the small of my back. I writhed in excruciating pain, altogether ignorant of the identity of who or what bestrode me. Who was it? A child? A dream? A highwayman? A suicide? A tempter? A wrecker? And I turned myself around to catch a glimpse. Bridge upends itself! I had not yet managed to turn over completely when I tumbled, I tumbled and already I was torn to shreds and pierced by pointed rocks that had always peered so peaceably from the bed of the rushing river.

I would suggest you, like I, might enjoy a new look at this darkly comic genius. Could we call him pre-cognitive of both the 20 and 21st centuries?  In this translation, he's a man for any time.

S.W.

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