:: Article

Reading Kafka in the spring in Prague

By Alice Whittenburg.

Franz Kafka, The Castle, trans. Mark Harman (The Schocken Kafka Library, 1998)

Construction projects abounded in Prague’s historic center during the Spring of 2018. Many picturesque buildings were hidden behind scaffolding, and the roar of heavy equipment drowned out church bells. One morning in May, I sat in a cafe on Vodičkova Street, just a few meters from Wenceslas Square. A small group of workmen, who had removed the cobblestones from the sidewalk near the café’s entrance and had already done some serious digging, stood waist-deep in a pit and used their pickaxes and shovels to engage with the city’s infrastructure. It seemed that every few meters throughout the tourist epicenter small groups of workers could be seen digging up or filling in such pits, despite the fact that hundreds of tourists were existing nearby. Though the workers outside the cafe had mastered the art of doing manual labor with a certain economy of motion, they seemed to swelter in the unseasonable heat. I drank my cappuccino, soon engrossed in a book, then lost track of the construction work going on just outside the door.

I had begun to re-read The Castle soon after I arrived in Prague. What struck me most during this reading was how much the novel focuses on the treatment and experiences of working people. In critical papers about the book there are frequent references to the law and the legal process, and Max Brod saw the titular castle as representing “divine guidance” [1]. But because this is Kafka we are talking about, a writer who is known for giving us “so many pointers to an unknown meaning,” [2] there is also the castle as a source of power and privilege. Sometimes this power and privilege is invested in K. himself or in an absurd figure like Klamm (who has, as Olga tells K., “… one appearance when he comes into the village and another on leaving it; after having his beer he looks different from when he’s talking to people, and – what is incomprehensible after all that – he’s almost another person up in the Castle.” [3]). Commonly, manual and menial workers have little power and privilege, but in this novel having any sort of job to do puts the worker at a serious disadvantage.

K.’s assistants are a comic duo, sometimes behaving like Chico and Harpo Marx, but they are often abused as they go about their jobs. K. is also mistreated when he works as a school janitor, a temporary position that he hopes will get him through until his stint as a land surveyor becomes a reality. A teacher strikes him with a ruler and shouts at him and he is sent out on useless errands, yet when it comes to his dealings with Barnabas, Klamm’s supposed messenger, K. has little more sympathy than his superiors have for him. K. is also cruel and unforgiving of his assistants, and according to one of them, “I only know that you were very rough on us… I can’t understand how you, an employee yourself and not even a Castle employee, aren’t able to see that a job like that is very hard work, and that it’s very wrong to make the work harder for the poor workers, and wantonly, almost childishly, as you have done.” [4]

While still in Prague I skimmed through the scholarly articles I could access online at Jstor, and I learned that I wasn’t the first person to read The Castle as a novel about working people’s experiences. Andrew Weeks wrote about class conflict in the novel and said it was Kafka’s own experience that “lent a distinctive class coloration to his literary subject-matter.” In fact, according to Weeks, no other subject matter appears more frequently in Kafka’s journals and novels than “his depiction of the contractual relationships of employees, their terms of service, the acts of hiring, promoting, and firing, and the subtle connections which link the employee to his superior.” This isn’t meant to say that Kafka’s writing is not highly imaginative and irreal, but Weeks adds that even highly imaginative literary works can draw “their essential motives from the realm of social fact.” In Kafka’s case this social fact seems to have involved his first years of work in the insurance industry during which salaried employees in government and business in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, known as the Festbesoldete, “consolidated their ranks in order to agitate aggressively for improvements in their social, legal, occupational, and political status.” [5] All of this took place before Kafka began to write The Castle, and though things changed when the Austro-Hungarian Empire was dissolved in 1918, Kafka infused the novel with what he had experienced.

Kafka also knew quite a bit about the experiences of working people other than office employees like himself. If you go to the Kafka Museum in Prague’s Little Quarter, you can see a facsimile of the report called “Preventative Measures Against Accidents Caused by Mechanical Brushes,” which Kafka wrote in 1909 for the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute. The museum reinforces the significance of this report by including photos of factory workers standing near the machines they tended. After a certain point Kafka’s job became accident prevention, which brought him in contact with the dehumanizing nature of the work world and the variety of serious accidents that could occur there.

In the part of the museum devoted to Kafka’s literary works, you will hear a sound collage comprised of stamping noises (to go along with a video of a bureaucrat’s stamp being applied again and again), the clanging of metal against metal, and a sort of shearing noise; on a nearby video screen images of rotating hands, each with different missing digits or parts of digits, reinforce the importance of Kafka’s accident prevention report and also the fact that work, in its many varieties and with its many torments, was of great significance to him. On a nearby wall this quote is offered: “The office is not a stupid institution; it is rooted more in the fantastic than in the stupid.” [6]

Just before you exit the Kafka Museum you can see a copy of the proceedings from the conference on Kafka’s work that was held in 1963 in Liblice, Czechoslovakia; the nearby signage describes Kafka as “one of the spiritual fathers of the Prague Spring.” Most Americans know about the August 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia and have seen the pictures of tanks in the streets of Prague. What they don’t know so well is what led up to that invasion, the period known as the Prague Spring, when intellectuals, workers, artists and others worked toward the possibility of “socialism with a human face.”

Because I knew I would be in Prague during the fiftieth anniversary of those events, I had already read parts of Vladimir V. Kusin’s The Intellectual Origins of the Prague Spring; and at the National Library in Prague I finished reading the chapter called “Alienation,” which is largely about Kafka’s influence on the 1968 events. Kusin says that adherents to the ruling ideology of that time had trouble acknowledging that people could be alienated from socialism, which was presented as “the most equitable of social formations.” But many of the writers and intellectuals who participated in the Liblice Conference “…recognized the existence of ‘alienation’ (a term coined in its wide implications by the young Marx, which later became the philosophical version of the ‘life feeling’ of the modern generation) under socialism. What else was alienation if not an expression of man’s refusal to identify himself with the political structure of his state?” One participant in the Liblice Conference, Alexej Kusak, a journalist and philosopher who saw Kafka’s negative depiction of bureaucracy as applicable to Stalinism, said Kafka was “a poet of his time” (capitalism) just as he was “a poet of our time” (neo-Stalinism). [7]

But though the artists and intellectuals who participated in the Prague Spring were highly interested in Kafka’s work, many of them were not quite able to empathize with working people’s alienation the way that Kafka seemed to have done. According to Jan Mervart, a member of the Czech Academy of Sciences who has written extensively about the Prague Spring, these radical democrats, as he deems many of the writers and intellectuals of that time, tended to involve themselves with publishing, educational activities and politics on behalf of their own interest groups, rather than engaging with the people. Their goal was “the self-realizing individual and the self-realization of an autonomous culture,” which might have seemed abstract to working people who were concerned with “the uncertain role of workers’ councils in a democratic society.” Mervart says:

However agreeable – and, at first glance, unproblematic – both of these goals may be, many questions regarding the conception of humans and culture remained unanswered. A universal definition of the liberated individual, for example, does not address the various forms of existing oppression (whether it be on the basis of class, gender, race or nationality) and it was not so clear if by person, wasn’t, in principle, meant the educated person of the socialist middle class and if the norms of such a free human individual would in fact be automatically carried over into the whole of society. [8]

Indeed, though my partner Greg (who reads and speaks Czech well) searched through the volume of proceedings of the Liblice Conference, he could find no reference to Kafka’s treatment of class conflict in The Castle.

Though the events of the Prague Spring are now more than fifty years in the past, alienation is still a part of our world, just as Kafka is still a poet of our time. In The Castle it is most explicitly stated that K. comes to the village near the castle because of a promise of a job, and it is also implied that he is an immigrant of sorts. A few days after he arrives in the village, when he has begun to live with a woman named Frieda and she says, “I won’t be able to stand this life here. If you want to keep me with you, we’ll have to go away somewhere or other, to the south of France, or to Spain,” he replies, “I can’t go away… I came here to stay. I’ll stay here.” And then he adds: “What could have enticed me to this desolate country except the wish to stay here?” [9] According to the publisher’s note in the 1968 edition of The Castle, Kafka told Max Brod that K would live in the village until his death; and on his deathbed the castle would inform him that his “legal claim to live in the village was not valid, yet, taking certain auxiliary circumstances into account, he was permitted to live and work there.” [10] This decree sounds like a ruling made by the Tories in Britain or the Trump Administration in the United States on behalf of a desperate migrant or refugee.

When I was ready to leave the café where I had been reading The Castle, I noticed that the workers had taken a break from their small construction site and had created a walkway for pedestrians by laying a sheet of metal over the still-open pit. I passed over it gingerly, annoyed because the decision to tear up the streets and sidewalks throughout the city had coincided with my visit. I was far from home and sick of the disruption, though of course the locals were much more profoundly affected. As for the construction workers themselves, many in Prague come from elsewhere outside the European Union, most often Ukraine, [11] just as K. came to the village near the castle to take a job as a Land Surveyor. I remember what it was like – before the Czech Republic joined the EU – to report to the Immigration Police to seek permission to stay in the country for six months and to have to deal with long lines, complicated forms, and harried bureaucrats. These construction workers had to seek permission, probably under similar circumstances, to spend their days grappling with an unfamiliar city’s infrastructure as tourists streamed by.

One Prague resident told me that the canalization project that had resulted in so much noise and mess was designed to upgrade the water and sewage systems, but I could never confirm the reason for this intensely disruptive activity. The noise, the dust, the seemingly uncontrollable nature of so much physical change seemed only to serve the interests of chaos. Reading The Castle didn’t solve any of these problems, but as was the case during the Prague Spring, Franz Kafka gave insight into alienation and gave consolation when absurdities threatened to overwhelm.

Alice Whittenburg lives in Tucson, Arizona, and frequently travel to the Czech Republic. She is co-editor of The Cafe Irreal, an online magazine of Kafkan fiction. Her fiction appears online in many places, including Atlas and Alice, riverbabble, and Eclectica. She is a long-time political activist and member of the National Writers Union.

[1] Frederick C. Crews, “Kafka Up Close,” The New York Review of Books, February 10, 2005, http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2005/02/10/kafka-up-close/
[2] Shimon Sandbank, After Kafka: the Influence of Kafka’s Fiction, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1989. For the relevant citation, see http://cafeirreal.alicewhittenburg.com/tcritica.htm#sandbank
[3] Franz Kafka, The Castle, translated from the German by Willa and Edwin Muir, with additional material translated by Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser, in The Complete Novels, London, Vintage Books, 2008, p. 608.
[4] Ibid. p. 663.
[5] Andrew Weeks, “Class Conflict in ‘Das Schloβ’ [The Castle]: The Struggle for a Dienstpragmatik [which means, according to AustriaForum, “Public Service Regulations, rules and regulations that governed the employment relationship under public law between government institutions and their employees (public sector employees) from 1914 to 1979; Civil Service Regulations,” see https://austria-forum.org/af/AEIOU/Dienstpragmatik/Dienstpragmatik_english]“, Monatshefte, Vol. 73, No. 1(Spring, 1981), pp. 35-50; available at JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/30157151
[6] Franz Kafka Museum in Prague http://www.kafkamuseum.cz/ShowPage.aspx?tabId=-1
[7] Vladimir V. Kusin, The Intellectual Origins of the Prague Spring: the Development of Reformist Ideas in Czechoslovakia 1956-1967, Cambridge at the University Press, 1971, pages 65-66
[8] Jan Mervart, “Radical democrats between reform and revolution,” translated from the Czech by G.S. Evans, publication forthcoming by Collegium Carolinum (Munich, Germany)
[9] Kafka, page 572
[10] Wikipedia entry on The Castle, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Castle_(novel)
[11] Daniela Lazarova, “Czech Republic to Open Up to More Foreign Workers,” January 2, 2018, Radio Praha in English, http://www.radio.cz/en/section/curraffrs/czech-republic-to-open-up-to-more-foreign-workers

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, June 12th, 2019.