Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Man who Disappeared: Franz Kafka's America

My entry into the bewildering world of Franz Kafka was through The Trial. The book with its story of a man persecuted for a crime he has no inkling of whatsoever was terrifying and apt as an analogy for life. For years, I dreaded picking up a Kafka again lest another facet of this impersonal universe where often we are nothing more than cogs caught in a wheel haunt me again. This year, however, I was determined to read America which had been lying on my shelves for more than a decade.

A much easier read than The Trial, America (Der Verschollene) is the story of a teenager, Karl Rossmann, who arrives in America after being seduced by a maid who subsequently becomes pregnant. While disembarking from the ship, Karl realises that he has forgotten his umbrella behind.The symbolism is adequate. No longer does Karl have the shelter of the Old World. As he goes back to retrieve it, he gets waylaid by the Stroker who tells Karl that he has been laid off because he dared to complain against the foreman. Touched by the man's plight, Karl argues his case in front of the captain. His defence impresses a Senator who is standing next to the captain, and who turns out to be the long-lost maternal uncle of Karl who had migrated to the States decades ago and who has now built himself a considerable fortune. The uncle who has anglicised his name from Jacob Bendelmayer to Edward Jacob, takes his nephew under his wings going as far as to provide riding and music lessons for him. One day, however, Karl accepts an invitation by his uncle's friend to the latter's house and this so offends his uncle that he turns him out. Adrift once again, Karl sets out on his own and has a number of adventures including falling in the company of rogues, working as a lift-boy, working in a theatre etc.

America was the first novel that Kafka wrote. Having been abandoned, it remained incomplete at the time of his death, in his forty-first year, of tb. The book has a surreal, bewildering quality to it and we are never very sure of where we stand. [It smites us right at the beginning when the Statue of Liberty is described as carrying a sword in its arm]. The ground can sink anytime underneath us. Reliability is a foreign concept and people behave in the most bizarre manner. We can never be sure of anyone or anything.

If you haven't read Kafka, this book provides an easy entry point. It holds one's interest but it doesn't have the haunting quality of The Trial.


First Line: As Karl Rossman, a poor boy of sixteen who had been packed off to America by his parents because a servant girl had seduced him and got herself with child by him, stood on the liner slowly entering the harbour of New York, a sudden burst of sunshine seemed to illumine the Statue of Liberty, so that he saw it in a new light, although he had sighted it long before.

Title: America

Original Title: Der Verschollene

Author: Franz Kafka

Translators: Willa and Edwin Muir

Original Language: German

Publication Details: Middlesex: Penguin, 1967

First Published: 1927

Pages: 268

Other books read of the same author: The Trial


The book can be easily purchased on the Net. I bought my copy at a library sale.


Read as part of the German Literature Month


Submitted for the following challenges: A-Z (Titles), Back to the Classics, Books in Translation, A Classic Challenge, European Reading, Mount TBR, TBR Pile, Unread Book.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Death of a Family: Andrea Maria Schenkel's The Murder Farm

In a remote farmhouse, six people have been brutally murdered, two of them kids ( one of them barely out of the crib) and one a maid who had but joined the house-hold. The village community is shocked. Who could have been the devil to murder defenceless people thus?

Andrea Maria Schenkel's award-winning debut novel, Tannod (The Murder Farm), is an exploration into the nature of sin and crime. Inspired by the unsolved Hinterkaifeck murders of 1922 in which a whole family had been found brutally murdered, Schenkel's novel too describes the savage murder of the Danner family.

 Comprising of five people: Old man Danner, the ruthless patriarch; his wife Frau Danner who knows that her husband married her only for money and who has been ill-treated by him right from her wedding-day; their daughter Barbara who is as proud as her father and whose husband deserted her one fine day; Barbara's kids Marianne and Josef whose parentage is a matter of gossip in the village, the family lives in a desolate farm and is not really liked by the other villagers. Then just like that, they are found murdered. The PM report reveals that they had been murdered a few days previously to the finding of their bodies, on the day in fact when a new maid had come to work for them. Could that have any bearing on the murders or is it that old secrets had come calling on that fateful day?

The novel's structure is disjointed. The narrator is a stranger to the village who had spent some months in the village after the war, which that time ironically was an island of peace, one of the last places to have survived intact after the great storm we had just weathered. The narrator goes on interviewing people who had known the family. As everybody gives his/her views of the family, with no view quite similar to the other, what emerges is a varied view of a dysfunctional family. Interspersed are the views of the murdered members presenting an alternate view of the reality. This trope of kaleidoscopic view is one of the strongest features of the novel. However, the narrator doesn't really present his views and could have done away with since s/he doesn't even reach the conclusion which the reader gets to know only through a particular confession.

That small irritant aside, the novel is a powerful page-turner that makes one reflect on the nature of sinning and crimes. Are crimes only the ones that are announced in screeching headlines? What about those crimes that go on behind shut doors? That we are perhaps aware of but do nothing about since we do not want to get involved in the personal matters of others. Who is a sinner? One who takes away a life? What about the person who abuses his/ her powers in ways that are perhaps socially accepted?

Setting it in a Germany not tortured by the vicissitudes of Versailles but by its own horrific Nazi past allows the author to present a picture of a shattered country. There are mentions of POWs from both sides, of teenage boys defending their country against advancing forces, of times under Adolf. The use of the dictator's first name rather than his (commonly used) surname is a masterstroke since it makes everything so real, so lived, so near.

There are certain touching passages in the novel as when a young girl thinks of her missing father and dreams of him coming to rescue her, or when a girl has to leave her sister because of economic considerations. Also the use of the possessive pronoun 'our' while referring to someone near and dear is so much like that in India where we are so possessive about our loved ones.

A remarkable read. Much recommended.


First Line: I spent the first summer after the end of the war with distant relations in the country.

Title: The Murder Farm

Original Title: Tannod

Author: Andrea Maria Schenkel

Translator: Anthea Bell

Publication Details: London: Quercus, 2009

First Published: 2006

Pages: 181

Trivia: Winner of  (among others) the German Crime Prize, Friedrich-Glauser Prize, and Martin Beck award.


Read as part of the German Literature Month


The book can be easily purchased online. I was lucky enough to get my copy as part of the German Literature Month.


Submitted for the following challenges: Books in Translation, European Reading, Free Reads, Mystery and Suspense, New Authors, Unread Book