Before I got pulled once again into the world of My Struggle, I was in the middle of a story about another Karl: not Karl Ove Knausgaard, but Karl Rossman of Amerika. Franz Kafka’s first (and, according to Schocken, funniest) novel is also his most incomplete, least frequently read, and most recently translated into English. Filled with the familial guilt Kafka’s characters so frequently handcuff themselves with, and the author’s typically behemoth, meaning-laden institutions, this immigrant story is not one about “making it” or “finding a better life” in a new land. Perhaps predictably, Karl’s story is framed negatively: he doesn’t come to America as much as he flees Germany, where he has impregnated an obsessive servant and shamed his parents. Sailing into New York Harbor, the ship of German emigrés he takes is met not with the iconic torch and guiding light atop the Statue of Liberty, but rather a sword. As correspondence with the Czech translator shows, this is a deliberate choice of the writer’s, an indication of the severity that accompanies American freedom and Karl’s own sense of guilt as he faces robed justice.
Before he even leaves the ship, Karl gets turned around in the labyrinth below deck and becomes tangled in a mess of human and bureaucratic affairs, helping a boiler stoker he has only just met. Later, he travels to the “Theater of Oklahama” [sic], an institution (representing the American Dream? social utopia? religious redemption?) that takes on anyone who applies but may or may not bring fulfillment. We can't say how things would have worked out for Karl here had Kafka completed the novel, but we can guess. “One could not hope for pity in this country,” the young man thinks later. “Here it was only those who were fortunate who truly seemed to enjoy their good fortune amid the indifferent faces on all sides.”
For someone who hadn’t been to the United States and didn’t know how to spell “Oklahoma” (note that the “Amerika” of the title [which was originally The Missing Person] is simply the German spelling preserved by the publisher, not the author's error), Kafka has an acute sense of a few things that still stand in the country today. For one thing, an oppressive industriousness: in the factory, doors never stop opening and closing, ringing telephones are ceaseless and "stupefying," and “no one said hello...each person following the steps of the person before him, either looking at the floor, which he wanted to cross as quickly as possible, or glancing at the papers in his hands and probably managing to catch only isolated words or numbers from the papers fluttering there.” Also, massive inequality and the lonely side of wealth and individualism. After leaving the eastern New York neighborhoods where “a family home amounted to no more than one corner,” Karl goes to a benefactor’s suburban house “with darkness everywhere,” getting lost (yet again) in its long corridors of locked doors and empty rooms whose “only purpose [was] to make a hollow sound whenever anyone knocked.”
I’m tempted to call this novel, with its young protagonist on his own for the first time, a bildungsroman–it is a German form, after all. But Karl seems hardly to change throughout the course of the book–only wandering, getting lost, and passing through the absurdity of his new environment with an unfailing sobriety and nonchalance. Jarring with this almost parodically earnest protagonist is an often ironic narrative voice. Think of the author’s famous August 2nd, 1914 journal entry (“Germany has declared war on Russia–Swimming in the afternoon.”) and you might get an idea of this book’s tone. Perhaps this contradiction results from the duty-bound author bleeding through the page, jealous of his near-liberated creation Karl and ultimately never allowing him to figure anything out.
As you prepare to watch the world’s biggest soccer teams compete for the World Cup in Brazil, take a look at how a Congolese man makes homemade soccer balls out of scraps for village children.
The Transformazium, an art installation and participatory community space in a once-abandoned church building in Braddock, PA has been doing all kinds of cool projects that have certainly caught my eye! They recently partnered with Braddock Carnegie Library to start a neighborhood screenprinting workshop, housed in the library. Transformazium was started to “redirect resources from an arts economy to a local economy.” This kind of work is especially important in a town like Braddock (right next to Pittsburgh) that has been struggling economically since its steel mills (the center of the economy there for much of the 20th century) started shutting down. Here’s a peek at their super cool art lending collection. I also love their recent music video made by artists Swoon and Maya Hayuk. I can’t wait to stop by and check out the library next time I’m in the area.