Author – Franz Kafka (Translated from German by David Wyllie)
Originally published in 1915
Genre – Absurdist Fiction
Franz Kafka’s seminal work of fiction “The Metamorphosis” has been on my “TBR” list for well over a year. I was hesitant to read it because I was sure that it would be too dark for my liking. However, I took the plunge a fortnight ago, and the book was all that it had promised to be. Despite being just 80 pages long, this novella is a difficult read because within all its surrealism is something very real and scary.
The story is about a travelling salesman, Gregor Samsa, who wakes up one morning to find that he has turned into an insect. What follows thereafter is an allegorical narrative steeped in dark humour and surrealism. There are four aspects to the story; the transformation (dehumanization) of Gregor into an insect, the reaction of other central characters (father, mother, sister who are dependent on him) to this transformation, the gradual alienation of Gregor by his loved ones, finally Gregor’s lonely death and how things quickly get back to normal for his folks. What is fascinating, is that, despite the physical transformation there is very little transformation in Gregor’s character. He patiently accepts the hardships and surrenders to authority.
Now, the last thing that I want to do is to explain the allegories (and there are many) hidden in the narrative — for e.g what did the picture that Gregor was hiding from his mother signify or why did Gregor’s father hurl “apples” at him, one of which, gets stuck on his back and decays? I think enough is available on the internet on this, explained by experts who have studied Kafka’s work more than I. Moreover, all these allegories are open to multiple interpretations and beyond a certain point everything seems allegorical in the narrative. Instead, I would like to explore why someone like Kafka, would write something as bizarre as this? That is far more interesting to me as a reader and writer.
So, I began to wonder –
Do such authors think a lot before writing such pieces?
Just because these works are considered ground-breaking, does that automatically mean that it is a result of years of deep thinking?
My gut tells me, “No”.
Kafka is believed to have asked his friend Max Brod to burn all his unpublished manuscripts because he saw no value in it. But here we are, 100 years later, discussing one of the seminal works of literature of the 20th century. To quote George Steiner, “What Dante and Shakespeare were for their ages, Kafka is for ours”. Thankfully, Mr Brod saw value in those discarded pieces of paper, a century ago, else we would have lost a treasure trove of literature forever!
The overpowering emotion that I felt while reading the story was anguish, but the narrative comes with no filters—no flowery language, no melodrama, and even the longish sentences have clear purpose, often leading to something conclusive. I did not ever feel that Kafka was writing this story to please anybody. Perhaps he was just writing what he was feeling—stifled by authority he was feeling like an insect. And that is exactly what he wrote.
If you do a bit of research, you will find out that most of what Kafka wrote did not take him much time. Sometimes a single sitting was enough. He was just writing what he wanted to say, as he wanted to say it. This may also explain why Kafka never saw value in his writings. He may have thought that conventional wisdom will not agree with what he wrote. But today all of it is literature and he is as original as original can be!
My takeaway therefore is, that there is no single ordained way to the truth, there are multiple ways to it. For me, this diversity is what makes reading fiction so fascinating. When an author brings his/her unique voice or should we say language to his/her stories it makes for great reading, and that is what I liked the most about “The Metamorphosis”.