A freshly translated collection of posthumously published work by the great master of existential angst and insectoidal transformation.
Kafka did not live long, but he produced an impressive body of work, most of it written in the dark, quiet hours after midnight. Perhaps that accounts for its preternatural gloom, for no one ever cracks a smile in a Kafka story. As translator Hofmann puts it, just right, Kafka “devised for himself a life that was largely disagreeable, inflexible and inescapable, and tried to make it productive.” He succeeded on all counts. Here, a number of odd themes emerge that perhaps connect to Kafka’s penumbral ways: at times, for instance, the narrator holds some sort of night job that puts him in oblique contact with the bureaucrats and bosses who rule the day, as in “New Lamps,” in which an official at company headquarters promises a safety-minded miner better oil lamps by which to work and instructs him to tell his fellow workers, “We won’t rest until we’ve converted your mineshaft into a drawing room.” Other stories illustrate Kafka’s interest in allegories and fables, especially with an Asian coloring, as with “Building the Great Wall of China,” a sketch that speaks of the power of empire to overwhelm the individual, even though the people “are where it ultimately draws its support.” As with the title story, many of Kafka’s stories involve animals. There, the dogs in question revel in a kind of “dogdom” or “dogness” hard won by evolving from their ancestors: “Our generation may be lost,” the narrator tells us, “but it is more innocent than its predecessors.” Just so, a character in another story has “taken a great interest in Elberfeld horses,” that is, horses trained to think like humans—and it’s a short step from there to Gregor Samsa.
Beguiling, quirky stories perfectly in keeping with the rest of Kafka’s work; often troubling but sometimes delightful.