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  • Writer's pictureJoseph Patrick Pascale

There Are No Cups in Kafka’s Amerika

Updated: Feb 12, 2019

“Sword? One supposes a mistake, since Kafka never saw the monument. Yet it grows increasingly clear that Karl has landed in a nightmarish new world where everything is slightly off-kilter, skewed and disorienting. A bridge over the Hudson connects New York to Boston.” (Quote-Michael Dirda, WP | Image-Vanished Empires)

Comic Moments in Literary Fiction #1

There’s plenty of reasons to laugh, so this series will explore the hilarious, laugh-out-loud moments found in serious, literary fiction. Even if you’re someone like Franz Kafka, exploring existential dread and the absurdity of everything, you might as well laugh along the way. For instance, it’s widely reported that when Kafka gave a reading of the first chapter of The Trial—in which Joseph K. awakens to detectives in his room, eating his breakfast, placing him under arrest for an unnamed crime (they don’t have the authority to tell him what he’s accused of), and telling K. that he can go about his day, although the court will keep an eye on him—Kafka could barely get through the reading because he was laughing so hard. David Foster Wallace wrote a great essay on Kafka’s humor and why Americans often don’t get catch the jokes, if you’d like to delve into that topic.

But for now, it’s my way of introducing a new series I’d like to try on this blog, in which I share moments I found particularly hilarious from works of literary fiction. We're using comic in the contemporary usage of "funny," not the tragedy/comedy plot classifications. We might be laughing at some tragedies in this series!

To start with one from Kafka, I’d like to share a scene from his first novel, often called Amerika, although The Missing Person is a more accurate title and translation. Like all three of his novels, it’s unfinished. The novel tells the story of Karl, a hapless young man whose parents ship him off to his rich uncle in the United States after he’s been sexually assaulted by a maid. Kafka never actually visited America, and this isn’t supposed to be an accurate representation of the country. Rather, the author presents his own Kafkan version of the United States. For instance, as Karl arrives in New York, he “saw the Statue of Liberty, which he had been observing for some time, as if in a sudden burst of sunlight. The arm with the sword now reached aloft, and about her figure blew the free winds.”

Karl has all sorts of bizarre adventures, but whenever I think about the novel, I remember this little moment and chuckle to myself. Karl has just spent the night at an inn with a couple of questionable characters, and now it’s the next morning:

“At last an innocent little boy came along and had to stretch up tall in order to hand the Frenchman the coffeepot. Unfortunately, there seemed to be only one coffeepot available, and it was impossible to get the boy to understand that they would like some glasses too. So only one person at a time could drink while the others stood beside him, each awaiting his turn. Although Karl had no desire to drink, he did not wish to hurt the feelings of the other two, and so, when his turn came, he simply stood motionless, holding the coffeepot to his lips.
By way of farewell, the Irishman threw the coffeepot onto the stone tiles; they left the building unobserved and left out into the thick yellowish morning fog” (Kafka translated by Mark Harman). 

It’s a small, inconsequential moment, but when I think of those guys standing there, waiting for their turn to drink out of the spout of the coffeepot—and Karl not wanting to, but drinking to be polite—I just burst out into laughter. 

And even though it's a silly detail, we can also read classic Kafka themes in the scene. We see that communication is impossible. This motif runs throughout Kafka's entire oeuvre. Just think of the "Message to the Emperor" that can never be delivered or the law meant only for you that you can never find out (in "Before the Law"/The Trial). Here, we see it even affects something as mundane as trying to drink a cup of coffee. We also see people doing things they don’t want to do out of some perceived expectation, the kind of behavior taken to the extreme in "The Judgement." There’s so much packed into one little, hilarious scene. I'll have to fight the urge to recreate the moment next time I have guests over for coffee! 

For the next entry in this series, we'll look at some Witold Gombrowicz!


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