on February 10, 2004
As everybody already pointed out Kafka wrote this novel without ever having been to America. Allegedly his characterisation of the country is more akin to the oppressive situation in Prague, but I think you can make an argument that he stumbled on a theme of American culture that isn't often explored, or rather best described by Kafka, the whole idea of claustrophobia within a land of wide open spaces. The young immigrant protagonist, Karl, seems to follow the 'right' path that is expected of him and yet finds himself unable to advance and trapped in horrible social situations. The story is set in an America that is so slightly off-kilter as to be surreal (it's not America, it's Amerika) and with that sense of Kafkaesque dread (like the Statue of Liberty with the sword in her hand instead of the torch - a symbol of war and violence instead of freedom and enlightenment, or that neverending labyrinth of a suburban mansion that is bigger than could ever be possible) but in a way Kafka's commentary on an America he never visited is one of the most shockingly accurate depictions you'll read. It's unfinished but I kind of liked that; it was endearingly rough around the edges and that made it even more surreal. Some people have mentioned that the last chapter is an optimistic one but I really found that the carnival-like atmosphere to be menacing and the uncertainty of Karl's future in a Wide Open Country was more a feeling of unnamed dread than optimism, but you know, it is Kafka.
on July 10, 2003
"Amerika" looks like it was written by someone who not only had never been to America but did not even care to know what it's really like. But Kafka's style is all about transforming the real into the surreal, tainting reality and disturbing our sense of order and structure. Even in the book's very first paragraph, when a ship carrying the protagonist, Karl Rossmann, approaches New York, the Statue of Liberty is depicted as holding in her raised hand not a torch symbolizing a beacon to welcome immigrants, but a sword, ominously threatening aggression. Similarly, when later in the book New York and Boston are described as being separated by the Hudson River, one wonders whether Kafka was sincerely ignorant of American geography or deliberately distorting it to create a dreamlike effect.
Karl, a German-speaking teenager from Prague, has been sent to America by his parents to evade charges of paternity by a maidservant he has impregnated. He is to learn English and complete his education while living with his uncle Jakob, owner of a shipping business. Soon he is invited to the mansion of one of uncle's friends, where he is assaulted by this man's daughter and loses himself within the enormous house's labyrinth of dark corridors. This is a typical Kafka touch -- enshrouding a normal situation with an eerie atmosphere and a sense of foreboding.
After Karl is expelled by his uncle over an unintended act of disrespect, he takes to the road and hooks up with two rough drifters named Delamarche and Robinson. They proceed to bully and steal from him and eventually cause him to lose his job as a hotel elevator operator, and, when all three end up living in an apartment with an imperious fat woman named Brunelda, Karl even becomes their prisoner and slave. These situations of helplessness and unfairness are evidence of more of Kafka's stylistic attributes -- paranoia and persecution fantasy -- which are employed to more morbid effect in "The Trial."
Like much of Kafka's work, "Amerika" is uncompleted, and we are left with a potentially intriguing fragment in which Karl, having somehow escaped his state of captivity, gets a job with a roadshow organization called the Theatre of Oklahoma, which promises (but ultimately cheats us out of) further bizarre adventures into the heartland of America. Kafka seems to imagine American showmanship as a perverse form of public spectacle; his portrayal of a street parade for the election of a judge, which Karl watches rapturously from Brunelda's balcony, is a narrative tour de force of human chaos.
The book's subtitle, "The Man Who Disappeared," expresses an idea that many Europeans may have had about America -- that emigration there was a final and irrevocable abandonment of cultural roots. But Kafka was not like many Europeans, let alone many people, and his theme can be interpreted more accurately as a descent into hell, a severance of all family ties (Karl lamentably loses his only photograph of his parents) and an immersion into the unknown. We can only hope that Karl, having sailed across the Atlantic like the dead being ferried by Charon across the river Styx, will be lucky enough to avoid the left-hand path towards his own personal Tartarus.
on September 11, 1998
Kafka's image of a foreboding land in which "no one has sympathy for anyone" and in which the statue of liberty carries a sword instead of a torch is amazingly perceptive for a writer who never set foot on the American continent. The novel's theme is unjust accusation and the willingness of others to believe the worst without knowing or caring about the facts. _Amerika_ is especially pertinent to today's America of trial TV, Dr. Laura Schlesinger and Jerry Springer -- in which the armchair sport of sanctimoniously plucking motes from the eyes of others has become a national passtime. Maybe Kafka had an insight into the future direction of American culture, or maybe we've always been this way.
Despite all this, _Amerika_ is Kafka's most upbeat work, and it ends on a fanciful, optimistic note. Beware, though: it is also Kafka's least complete work and the last chapter completely changes scene and situation without any explanation. Even given this fault, however, the book is well worth the read. Kafka does get a lot of things wrong about American culture, but he gets the important themes right and even some of the details (like our obsession with pointlessly saying "hello" over and over on every chance meeting). _Amerika_ might well be the Kafka novel for those who don't like Kafka -- a kind of Kafka lite. To those familiar with the gloominess of the Penal Colony or the Castle or the Trial, _Amerika_ will seem like PG Wodehouse by comparison.
on October 9, 2001
Kafka drives the reader crazy by this epic narration about the adventures of Karl, an adolescent sent to America at the beginning of XX century. While escaping from a stupid love affair Karl is to meet his uncle who will receive him at home and will push him into the secrets of accounting.
Thanks to one of Kafka's eternal "malentendus" Karl is sent to the immigrant's arena and he has to live on his own. Almost penniless, his sole possessions are his battered trunk and an old photography of his parents.
One can't but feel empathy and tenderness for young Karl. Fired by his uncle who was supposed to protect him, Karl has to cope with two drunkards (an Irish and a French) who attempt by all means to abuse of his innocence by promising him a job in the west coast.
Karl then finds a humble place at a big hotel. He is in charge of one of the numerous elevators and works almost sixteen hours a day just to be dismissed due to a new misunderstanding.
At times hilariously, the novel describes the situation of many Europeans who might have dreamed of America as an oasis to later realize they were just joined as a little part of an enormous and unspeakable machine.
on December 16, 1999
Kafka never set foot in America, Yes, it's true. He writes however quite valiantly about the American lifestyle of the era in a manner that suggests that he had been there. As far as importance, this novel might not rank high up there in terms of the Kafka canon, but it is perfect for those who have just started. If you've never read Kafka, read this book first, and then move on to anything else-- you will literally feel yourself falling off a literary cliff. There are reocurring instances where the main character precariously falls into the most atrocious situations, of which he has no control. Trust me, you'll be hitting yourself over the head, this is a fairly comical book, and only a pit stop for other things to come.
There is an excellent review of this book on 'The Amazon site' by AJ Feinsinger that captures the story of this work, and much of its strangeness.
I am only adding a few impressions of my own.
First I concur with the observation that this is a book written by a person who has never been in America. I remember reading it years ago, and how it seemed to me the very opposite of everything America stands for.
America in my mind then, was brightness and optimism , a new hope and a new dream. It was moving Westward, and pioneering. It was clear and simple and beautiful
Kafka's 'Amerika' is complicated and mind- ridden. It is filled with paradoxes and absurdities, with strange cruel meetings .The atmosphere of nightmare and difficulty that pervades Kafka's work was felt by me then as in absolute contradiction to the American spirit.
Of the novels , 'The Castle ' 'The Trial' and this one I find this one the least satisfying, the most incoherent. It is very much a super- incomplete work. 'Incompleteness' is of course part of Kafka's legacy and gift .But here it seems often as if there simply has not been enough time given to the text.
I am in any case a reader of Kafka's diaries, parables, stories, shorter works more than I am of his novels which I find somehow tiresome.
This is to my mind the least satisfactory of all of Kafka's work.
And yet as Kafka reveals to us our own contradictions, paradoxes and fears in a way no one else can- this work too has its meaning and instruction.
on December 18, 1998
It amazes me how Kafka has caught the American spirit so well. Since the end of World War II, Ameirican culture has become increasng hedonistic at the expense of other nations and even our own poor. But that spirit is reflected especially so in the 1990's where we seem to have forgotten what it means to look out for one another, and have lost the meaning of true hospitality and human empathy. Perhaps, Tom Brokaw in his new book, The Greatest Generation, is right; not since our grandparents has the nation cared for it's own in such an unselfish manner. That sense of caring seems to have been lost to us today.
on August 30, 2005
Without ever having visited America, the German-speaking Czech author, Franz Kafka, wrote a novel based on research which included an autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, travel brochures, and the stories of Europeans who had traveled to America and returned to Europe. The result was the novel, Amerika, his unique and often very unrealistic interpretation of life in America. Amerika follows an almost sixteen-year-old boy through a series of experiences and adventures. Due to misbehavior at home, Karl Rossmann is sent by his parents to New York to live with his uncle in America . Kafka's skewed view of America is immediately demonstrated as Karl is greeted by the statue of liberty holding a raised sword. Karl meets many people and discovers a life quite different than any he has ever known in Europe. Karl meets his uncle and finds himself in the midst of people who are well-off in society. Later, on his own, he discovers a different side of American life. From houses the size of castles, to unfair treatment by his employer, to an out-of-control political rally, Karl is constantly surprised by America as he experiences many bizarre occurrences. Because Kafka did not finish Amerika, the reader is left disappointed in not knowing what happens to Karl, but also hopeful for Karl's future. This book is an interesting portrayal of America from the point of view of an early twentieth-century European who had never visited America. This makes the book intriguing.
on May 6, 2001
The book starts with the seen of Karl Rossmann, a sixteen years old boy from Germany, standing on the liner entering the harbour of New York. He was forced to leave Europe by his parents because a servant girl seduced him and got herself with child by him. America does not look at first sight as a friendly place: the Statue of Liberty, for instance, is depicted with a sword in her hand instead of a torch. The book then tells the adventures of Karl, the people he meets, the places he visits and the jobs he finds. The atmospheres vary from the classical dreamy nightmarish set of other Kafka's books to a realistic set which, in some way, is even stranger and more disquieting. Everything can be seen as real, especially if the reader considers that the point of view is the one of a sixteen years old finding himself alone in an unknown country where a language, that he must learn, is spoken.
Unfortunately, the book is unfinished. The first six chapters are complete. Between the seven and the eight chapter there is a gap, the eight chapter, which was supposed to be the last one, is unfinished. Therefore, I suggest to readers who never read Kafka to start from some other book such as "the trial", "the metamorphosis" or the other short stories. Readers, who are familiar with other works by Kafka, will find in this book a lighter mood.
on March 21, 2011
There were several times when I was tempted to set aside 'Amerika'...well, that's not exactly right. Several times I was tempted to hurl the book across the room. Franz Kafka's depiction of the young Karl Rossman's adventures in the make-believe country of Amerika was oftentimes so excruciatingly uncomfortable to read that I didn't think I was going to be able to go on. That Kafka was able to evoke such a visceral reaction is a testament to his abilities, I suppose, so there is that; frankly though, for the most part, it was an experience I could have skipped.
Enough has been said about the fact that Kafka never visited America - never made it any further west than Paris - and of the misconceptions about this country that he included in the book, that I doubt it will be helpful to go over them again. At first glance, considering the book's title is 'Amerika', one might think those misconceptions are critical mistakes, especially if one is looking for a realistic novel in the vein of Dreiser or Upton Sinclair. That is, until one realizes that Kafka's literary executor Max Brod came up with the title to his friend's unfinished manuscript; Kafka's working title had been 'The Man Who Disappeared' - and with this, I think we actually enter Kafka country.
So it seems to me that it serves no real purpose to fault 'Amerika' for not accurately reflecting America. Although it seems obvious that the *idea* of this country - as filtered through information available to a Middle European of the early 1900's - was the inspiration for Karl Rossman's adventures, I also believe that the particular territory that Franz Kafka wanted to explore - as he does with all his writings that I've read - is the peculiar setting of a rational man ensnared by others incapable or unwilling to act on any impulse other than their vulgar instincts. Rossman's problem, similar to K. and Gregor Samsa, is that he is a rational centrist - able to empathize even with the worst scoundrels, yet by chance or contrivance, only able to act in his own best interest when it serves him most to keep quiet, or to be strangely silent at the moment he should most speak up.
What sets 'Amerika' apart from Kafka's later, more accomplished work in 'The Trial', is that here I get the feeling that the author is simply toying with his character - that the deprivations and cruelties that Rossman suffers serve no greater purpose other than as examples of how the world mistreats its outcasts and the weak. In fact, I think it goes to extreme lengths to show this - each time Rossman is about to gain some relief, the author arbitrarily raises another scenario to toss him back into the frying pan.
'Amerika', according to the back matter of this Schocken edition is ''Kafka's first and funniest novel" - funniest if you think pulling the wings off of flies is funny, I suppose. I will say that the last chapter - 'The Nature Theater of Oklahoma' - nearly redeems the previous unpleasantness though. I might even be persuaded to think that the depths that Rossman is forced to experience prior makes the possibilities at the end all the more powerful, but whether that is true or not doesn't really matter. Instead, it is the almost a child-like innocence of the ideas behind the 'Nature Theater' that give it its surreal resonance. Surely a glimpse of heaven, as heralded by the angelic host that greets Rossman when he goes to apply for employment, Kafka leaves us on a decidedly upbeat note.
'Amerika' is unfinished, though to me it reads similar to the more post-modern habit of open-ended, ambiguous endings. If anything, I would think the missing chapters between young Karl's last entanglement with the scoundrels Robinson and Delamarche and his seeking out the Nature Theater would be more jarring than the ending is - but neither should be enough on their own to discourage anyone from tackling the novel. The reason I *do* only slightly recommend the novel has to do with the ultimately unsatisfying trials of Karl Rossman, which seem to be an end unto themselves. While there are still worthy aspects spread out over the entire story, I believe almost any of the other works by Kafka would be time better spent.