Konundrum is a new translation of stories by the late Czech lawyer Franz Kafka, arguably the best literary author of the last century. Wortsman’s collection assembles some of Kafka’s greatest hits, including The Hunger Artist, A Report To The Academy, and his iconic novella Metamorphosis, retitled here Transformed.
Short pieces are mixed in with extracts from Kafka’s diaries and journals in the first half of the book. These short pieces, ranging from the drabble-like Concerning Parables to Unhappiness, a ghost story that spans a few pages, are as mystifying as they are memorable. Wortsman included my favourite short Kafka tale, A Messenger From The Emperor, but it’s strange that the parable Before The Law doesn’t appear. The story Eleven Sons was an unexpected highlight, demonstrating exactly how far you can get with only a character study and no plot. Kafka displays an original take on classical mythology, penning tales where sirens are silent, Prometheus fuses with his rock, and Poseidon is too busy managing his oceans to enjoy them. If you want to know how to write extremely short fiction that is extremely engaging, read Kafka.
I was less comfortable with the autobiographical scraps, although I enjoyed I Can Also Laugh, which described the time Kafka had a laughing fit in front of an office superior. If Kafka was an author who hungered for publicity, like Oscar Wilde, I’d be fine with trawling through his private material, but based on his dying wish to have his writings incinerated I’m willing to get that he was an anxiously private man. I’d hate for some future publisher to mine my inbox for literary gems, but that didn’t bother me so much that I skipped Kafka’s private moments.
The key themes of Kafka’s substantial stories are animal protagonists and alienation, with a side of bureaucratic sadism. The indecisively-titled Josephine, Our Meistersinger or the Music of the Mice is a meditation on the role of a whistling mouse in the culture of her species. Similarly, Investigations of A Dog is a meditation on canine philosophy and what the world would look like from atop four furry feet. I’m particularly fond of A Report To The Academy, about a chimp who integrates into human society, because a part of me thinks of it as a Planet of The Apes prequel. Transformed, begins with the salesman Gregor Samsa waking up a giant insect. The story gets its humour from Samsa’s apologetic attitude and how horribly his family treats him.
The two most gruelling stories in the collection are The Hunger Artist and In The Penal Colony. The first is about a man who publicly fasts in fairgrounds, and while I’m certain it’s intended to be a pun on the ‘starving artist’ cliché it verges on glorifying eating disorders. If any Kafka story had to be burned I’d have chosen In The Penal Colony, because I’m worried that someone will try out the inventive torture method it describes. Let’s just say it brings a whole new meaning to ‘Word Made Flesh’. I wouldn’t look down on you for skipping those two stories.
I can only speak English, so I’m not sure how seriously I should be taken when I say Wortsman is a good translator. Sometimes his text got distractingly American, with the phrase ‘oh boy’ appearing and Gregor Samsa remembering a ‘cute’ chambermaid, but I’m not sure if that’s any less authentic than the neutral British dialect I expect in translations. Based on this collection, I’d like to see more of Wortsman’s work. His afterword was good as well, particularly when he compared retranslating a beloved old text to covering a classic tune, although I’d split it in two and use his Kafka biography as a foreword and his thoughts on translation as an afterword.
Kafka is the vegemite of high-brow literature. You either hate it, love it, or hate it and then realise you love it. Konundrum is an excellent starting place to try his stuff out.
This review was based on an advance copy of the book. Grab yours here.