Szyzygy's Blog

September 7, 2009

What kafkaesque is…

Filed under: Uncategorized — syzygy @ 7:53 pm
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I have been thinking much recently about the nature of what it might be, exactly, that constitutes something which can be described as kafkaesque. There are strong personal reasons for this line of reflection although I do not feel particularly comfortable expounding them in what is essentially a new and fairly unfamiliar public place for me, the much vaunted blogosphere. You will have to take it on trust that while I am not going to go there, a rationale exists for me to be gnawing this particular philosophical bone at this particular time.

In this line of inquiry I am much assisted by an article I read many years ago  by Milan Kundera. Being the information-acquisitive sort of soul that I am and always have been, I made a journal note of the key points of Kundera’s observations. Delving through my accumulated journals, Volume IV, which covers much of the mid 1980s, produced the necessary information, and more which I had forgotten about altogether, some of which is, in the cold light of incipient senility at least, even more interesting.

Apparently Josef Skvorecky related to Kundera the true story of a Prague engineer during the grim years of the Comintern’s iron grip on Czech society who got the opportunity to travel to a seminar in London. He duly went, took part in the seminar, and returned post-haste to Praha. Barely a few hours after his return, a story appeared in Rude Pravo, the official mouthpiece of the Czech communist party of the time, which stated “A Czech engineer, travelling to a seminar in London, has, according to Western press reports, condemned his socialist fatherland and decided to remain in the West.” It should be noted that the penalty for illegal emigration under the communist regime was 20 years penal confinement. The engineer was in a state of shock; it was undoubtedly him they were writing about.  He rushed round to the editor of Rude Pravo – the matter, alas, was out of his hands, and he was referred to the Ministry of the Interior. He went there, only to be told that it was also out of their hands; they had had their report from their secret service in London. He asked for a retraction but they gave him to understand that this was unnecessary. The engineer, not trusting the verbal assurance, asked for it in writing but this they refused to do. He became depressed and was unable to sleep at night. Eventually, he became so nervous and paranoid that he emigrated illegally.

The above, Kundera opined, was very much symptomatic of Prague of the time, and could clearly be defined as kafkaesque according to the aspects which Kundera notes as being salient. Firstly, the tale reflects what Kundera characterises as an ‘invisible labyrinth’; the individual in the story is lost in a maze of process whose beginning, middle and end are imperceptible yet omnipresent, much as was the case of Josef K. in The Trial. Then, the rules of the invisible labyrinth are out of step with ‘real’ reality but are nevertheless entirely consistent to their own logic.  Another determining factor is that the innocent are guilty until capable (never) of proving their innocence. Finally, there is an element of farce intertwined with grand guignol: the reader laughs and yet the prospect of it all becoming horribly real can evince the other sort of laughter, the chimpanzee fear-laugh.

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