Poem of the Week / Who Is Kafka? Who Is Anyone?

Asher Reich on who did what to whom.

Ayala Tal

Kafka

Asher Reich

Every time I looked at his picture I saw a different person.
The man waiting at the gate
is not Kafka, though his name begins with K.

The surveyor is not Kafka, nor is the lord of the castle
who is pretending to be the lord of the castle.
Is the cockroach Kafka, or vice versa? The cockroach
is playing itself, not the man Kafka. The man

whose picture is printed in the newspaper was born in Prague
and looks like Kafka, but he isn’t Kafka. He’s an insurance
agent called Josef K. who is sure he is
Kafka. The judge who glories in the rare name Kafka
is an actor in the play “The Trial” adapted

from Kafka’s book. Who is the hunger artist?
Did Kafka submit the report to the academy, or vice versa?
Was Kafka the jailer at the penal colony, or
vice versa: a wretched prisoner?! The police say
they have arrested Kafka for conspiring to burn his writings
and there are two witnesses who confirm his identity.

But it’s not Kafka. It’s his friend Max, who didn’t burn them,
because he pursued one-eyed justice. Was Kafka’s
vegetarianism only anti-meat or did his asceticism
imprison his life, which was one long suicide?
So who and what is this Kafka whose identity has faded?
The man who was against life, an exile in his own body,
succumbing to the sweet taste of sickness, or vice versa?

Translated by Vivian Eden. The Hebrew poem will be included in Reich’s “Selected Poems,” forthcoming at Mossad Bialik.

***

Franz Kafka was born in Prague on July 3, 1883, and died in 1924. But who is Franz Kafka, and who is anyone? Is he his singular, complete, incontrovertible and sometimes not very interesting biography, his life in the outer world – where he was born, how he earned his living (Kafka worked for an insurance company)? Or is he his creative world, the shared and known products of his imagination – who, like the characters in Kafka’s writings, are manifold, elusive, incomplete and contradictory? Is he the effect he has – or does not have – on the people around him? Or is he his unknown inner world, his psyche, the secret life of his soul?

An earlier version of “Kafka,” published in Hebrew in the Culture and Literature section of Haaretz on August 12, 2011, ends: “… because he pursued one-eyed justice. So who is Kafka? / An unknown writer? A doctor of jurisprudence? This is Kafka!” There, the answer appears to be more decisive: He is all of these. In this revised version Asher Reich sent to Haaretz English Edition, the question remains open, which seems truer both to Kafka and to life.

Reich was born in 1937 to an ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem family. He left the traditional world at 18 to join the army and has led a secular life ever since, as a poet, writer, translator and editor. The form of this poem is his own invention and is typical of much of his poetry: One line is added to each successive stanza. He says that for him, this form serves the same function as internal rhyme, a kind of “structured order within wild freedom.” Here, the poem starts with a simple observation and the cumulative weight of the stanzas deepens the anxiety the questions arouse.

“Max” is Max Brod (1884-1968), Kafka’s friend and executor, who defied Kafka’s wish that he burn his writings. In 1939 Brod fled from the Nazis to Tel Aviv with his wife and many of Kafka’s papers, which became the focus of a mystery and a legal battle following the death of Brod’s secretary, companion and heir in 2008. Eventually, an Israeli judge ruled that the papers should be given to the Israel National Library and made available to the public. 

* Musings:

If your friend wanted you to burn his or her papers, would you do so, even if you thought they were of tremendous literary or historical value?  

The earlier version of the poem as originally published in Haaretz on August 12, 2011:

Tomer Appelbaum