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Kafkaesque cover

The Mirage cover

It is now more than a century since Alice Herz-Sommer first met Franz Kafka in Prague, four years before the Suicide Jinn ("When God wants to punish you, He grants your wish") ensorcelled the West into an alternate world that the young writer, in his late twenties when he knew Alice, could see even then as clear as day: no metaphors clogging his vision: no allegory giving his readers any excuse to think he was wise after the fact. Alice (and her twin sister) were six or seven years old in 1910. Their parents knew Kafka (they also knew Gustav Mahler). In the 1930s, Alice worked as a concert pianist, and it seems almost certainly survived two years in Theresienstadt (1943-1945) because she played Chopin for Nazis, concert after enforced concert, making their eyes dribble. In early 2012, in North London, now 108, after almost a century in the world-war world the jinn made, she continues to play Chopin two hours a day, as though she had been been given a special dispensation to remember reality. In a recent interview ("A Kafkaesque magical moment . . .", Camden New Journal, 26 January 2012) she speaks of Kafka as "a pessimistic man [who] made up stories for us!" She has lived in his stories ever since. She is, it follows, "Kafkaesque."

All this did of course begin in Prague before the gods left Prague. In the carefully titled "Stories After Kafka," their editors' introduction to the carefully titled Kafkaesque: Stories Inspired by Franz Kafka, John Kessel and James Patrick Kelly bite the bullet immediately: "In the tourist shops of Prague," they tell us correctly, "along with T-shirts announcing 'Prague Drinking Squad,' you may buy other shirts bearing the image of Franz Kafka." The image seems astutely picked. Though Kessel and Kelly say nothing about what has changed in Prague since World War One, they're vividly aware that the twenty-first century tourist city has transmogrified the grammar of its exoskeleton: the buildings and squares still unsorcelled by war; the polychromatic churches flagging centuries of Christian schism; the tower clocks whose automata have repeated the same hour for the same centuries. Prague in 2012 is an alternate world as distant from the world Kafka lived in as any of the worlds created by his epigones in this volume: because what one notices about twenty-first century Prague and its Caf‚e Kafka and its Kafka matches is that there are no Jews in Prague, though Kafka was a Jew; what one also notices is that there is no German spoken there, due to what seems to be a total absence of German-speaking Czechs in the Czech Republic, though Kafka was a German-speaking Czech who wrote in German while at the same time, as a cosmopolitan citizen of a city at the centre of the world, he spoke Czech too.

Prague is a cenotaph of Kafka the man: a monument to the absence of the world he inhabited: there is nothing left of Alice Herz-Sommers either. Which is not to say that the hollowed Prague of 2012 fails to embody what he saw. Prague today—certainly its Stalinist subway system—is sufficiently lifelike to evoke the uncanny-valley sensation that it, and the world we all inhabit, is almost real: that indeed our alternate history world is Kafkaesque. What we discern in most of the stories assembled in Kafkaesque, however, is mostly something else, and it is here we should remember the subtitle (the introduction is also clear on this). Most of the stories here assembled are Kafka-esque mainly because they feature Kafka, they represent attempts to re-create some sense of the man himself, some context for him. Which (one must say) is precisely the trap Kafka himself exquisitely dodged. The pure modernist extremism of Kafka is to show us a world without bling, tales that do not jingle-jangle with the habitus of self, the tin cans tied to the dog's tale. The three tales in Kafkaesque that most deeply resemble what Kafka himself might have written—Jorge Luis Borges's "The Lottery in Babylon" (1941), J. G. Ballard's "The Drowned Giant" (1964), and T. Coraghessan Boyle's "The Big Garage" (1981)—are told without bling. There is no "Kafka" in any of them. Most of the remaining stories in the anthology, some of them very fine indeed, do something else. They are what one might call arabesques of encounter: devout sidlings toward encagement. So be it.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the Kafka story most intensely encountered in Kafkaesque is "A Hunger Artist" (1922), a good translation of which by Kessel—though he mars it by reparagraphing the tale into 29 Lo-Cal Kafka Bites (the Muir translation has nine)—heads the anthology. Interpretation is notoriously unsafe when it comes to Kafka's work, you could even call it toxic, so we should be chary. In their introduction, which does come dangerously close to sanctioning the term "allegory" as a model for understanding his work, Kessel and Kelly do wisely quote Walter Benjamin's statement that Kafka "took all conceivable precautions against the interpretation of his writings." So let it be that "The Hunger Artist" is nothing "more" than this: a narration of the career of perhaps the last person to engage in a dying profession as the world changes around him: he is a hunger artist whose performance is to fast himself almost to death in public, initially to much acclaim. Eventually his refusal to abandon this "role" leads to his immurement in a carnival cage, where he continues to fast, almost invisibly: for he can do nothing but what he is, even though the jinn has just snapped his fingers and switched worlds (oops, a bit of interpretation there one fears). In the end, he dies. His cage is taken over by a panther whose energy, unloyal to the sacrifice of their freedom that humans make, seems boundless.

It is a tale in which Kafka comes very close to something it would be treason to define as a portrait of the artist: but it is certainly a tale capable of haunting any attempt to describe the making of art, the making of worlds: and it therefore haunts Kafkaesque, though the inclusion of "A Hunger Artist" (1993), a weirdly didactic graphic version of the tale by David Mairowitz and Robert Crumb, seemed a tad insistent. I'd have mildly preferred to see in its place Daniel Stern's excellent "A Hunger Artist by Franz Kafka" (1992), as it touches a lot of bases. But Kafkaesque—expertly assembled by two deft writers who know how present a volume that will appeal to teachers without frightening off the rest of us—could have been twice as long, and been too short.

Other tales I was struck by, sometimes because it was good to see them again in this context: Eileen Gunn's "Stable Strategies for Middle Management" (1988), more overtly hilarious than Kafka ever allowed himself to be (though he is of course very funny); Terry Bisson's "The Cockroach Hat" (2010), by several years the newest story reprinted here, and again hilarious; Jeffrey Ford's "Bright Morning" (2002), an exceedingly clever metafiction about a Kafka story that doesn't exist (and more); Theodora Goss's "The Rapid Advance of Sorrow" (2002), which bathes recursively in pool upon pool of versions of Kafka. And there are several attempts to sidle into Kafka the man, including Paul Di Filippo's "The Jackdaw's Last Case" (1997) and Jonathan Lethem and Carter Scholz's "Receding Horizon" (1995), both tales which pin him into alternate worlds where, like a shadow puppet of the real, he anguishes thin and burning; plus Carter Scholz's solo "The Amount to Carry" (1998), which brings together three real-life insurance exectives—Kafka, Charles Ives (1874-1954), and Wallace Stevens (1879-1955)—and places them in a hotel which more and more resembles the eponymous edifice in D. M. Thomas's The White Hotel (1981).

These are all fine stories, astutely constructed, and they show love. It is good to see them consorted here in an anthology designed to honour K. If these stories in particular lack some ingredient that makes them seem genuinely Kafkaesque, it may perhaps, very simply, lie in their deployment of generic alternate realities to "capture" an author who saw our own world with such uncanny verisimilitude that he had no need of gear to call us awake.

There is poison in the tail of Matt Ruff's The Mirage, which means spoilers. The poison is implicit in the "American Proverb" used as an epigraph. We know it already. "When God wants to punish you," it goes, "He grants your wish." We begin in an alternate history of the world (and I think we may end in another), a world which essentially reverses the geopolitics of the last century or so, so that the disunited European West and balkanized America are juxtaposed to an Islamic world dominated by the United Arab States, which comprises North Africa, the Levant, the Arabian peninsula, and Asia Minor. On 9 November 2001, four commerical flights are hijacked by fundamentalist Christians and destroy the World Trade Towers in Baghdad. The tale begins in 2009, in a world that has suffered the consequences—similar to but subtly less savage than what happened to our own "real" world after 11 September 2001—of this act. Ruff is not really very concerned to fix this down, but I think the main jonbar point on which the world of The Mirage depends is his redating of the foundation of the essentially boneless Arab League in our 1945 to somewhere around the end of the nineteenth century, when the twenty-two signatory states successfully fend off Ottoman Turkey and create a stable federal government. America—here the jonbar point games get iffy—has never really coalesced into one republic. One of the disparate bits of what never became America is the Rocky Mountain Independent Territories (which is to say Afghanistan), apparent home of the martyrs who perform the 2001 attack, though they carry Texan (which is to say Saudi Arabian) passports. Perversely, in 2003, the UAR invades the part of "America" governed from Washington, DC, exactly what the mastermind behind the attack hoped would occur: as it will poison the world, and help bring about the end of things, so a new start can be made. I am not going to explain exactly why it is a spoiler to reveal that this mastermind is Osama bin Laden, though most of us who are not American—and who are likely therefore to give credence to the argument that in this world Osama bin Laden's moment of triumph was the moment when President Bush and the spaniel Blair invaded Iraq, and holed the Ship of the West, maybe for good—will have almost certainly made the bin Laden match long before Ruff reveals it formally. That both iterations of bin Laden are both deeply religious and profoundly evil should perhaps go without saying: they are.

The story itself shifts, not entirely easily, from political thriller to family romance to Dickian reality-ain't-what-it-used-to-be riffs to eschatological fantasy; but moments of narratological dis-ease were (for me) easily forgotten in the flow of Ruff's constantly inventive plays on the worlds he has created through his jonbar reversal: the suave corner-of-the-mouth ease of his depiction of this America as a version of our own Middle East; the deft (if sometimes headbanger) identity plays: an entirely recognizeable Dick Cheney being referred to solely as Quail Hunter, for instance. Despite the manichaean over-clarity of the switcheroo, we begin to want to believe in this world. But a shared psychosis is beginning to pollute it, images of Twin Towers toppling in what seems to be Manhattan, moments of double vision like stigmata that afflict the cast, making it seem to them that their by no means edenic but all the same encompassingly livable world may be disintegrating like fog in the morning, revealing another much less good world, a world we do not wish to end up in, a world America devoured then spat up.

It is not only that readers identify with protagonists, and that the three protagonists of The Mirage are attractive figures with full lives, so that we do not wish them to dissolve into the sadder beings they would become over here. Even more compelling is the engaging poignance of The Mirage, which lies in the fact that it gives us, with all faults—residual barbarities continue to cripple women's lives, etc.—a world we can imagine without terror: but that this world, as we've already said, has being poisoned. It is being poisoned because it has not been irredeemably soured by the Twin Towers. It is being poisoned—we are in fantasy country now, a territory where jinns may grant our wishes—by the one man who needs to inhabit a world as close to destroying itself as ours, an alternate world as Kafkaesque as a tale by Kafka. In order to bring about the Will of God, Osama bin Laden needs us. He needs us to finish the job, so God can create a new world for His warriors to rule.

At the end of The Mirage a great sandstorm covers the world. There are survivors. They are the folk we spent the novel with. Ruff does not tell us what they will find. At first sand covers everything, and then a city comes into view. Alice Herz-Sommer can be heard playing Chopin, or not.

John Clute ( has been writing SF and fantasy criticism since the 1960s, and has been involved in writing encyclopedias since the 1970s. His novel Appleseed (2001) was a New York Times Notable Book in 2002. His most recent book is a new collection, Stay, which includes both criticism and short fiction. He is currently working on the third edition of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.
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29 May 2023

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