When somebody thinks of Franz Kafka, their mind immediately goes to “Metamorphosis” or “The Judgment” while “America”, or “The Man Who Disappeared” is often overlooked. The novel differentiates itself from others, as it gives a new perspective on Kafka and his style. His description of America is based purely on what he read and learned through the books, lectures, and conversations with immigrants, as he never had a chance to visit. Kafka creates a new imaginary country, very different from the real world. Its first impressions on both the main character and the reader can be seen from the very beginning of the book.
The main character, Karl Rossmann, is a sixteen-year-old boy, who gets sent to America to avoid a huge scandal concerning the main character and a maid who got pregnant after she has “seduced” him. Only later, from Rossmann’s description, do we find out it was a rape. “…pressed her naked belly against his body…in such a revolting manner that Karl shook his head and throat out from under the quilts…”. Such imagery very clearly shows that the experience has now become a very unpleasant memory for Karl. This event sets the way the main character acts throughout the rest of the story—in a helpless state, he then lets everyone use him.
Upon his arrival to America, Karl, while searching for his forgotten possessions, meets a stocker and learns his story, which leads to both of them going to the captain to fight for justice for Karl’s new friend. During this event, the main character accidentally meets his rich uncle Jacob, who decides to take the young boy under his wing. At first, everything is perfect. Karl enjoys his newfound privileges, like the opportunity to learn English with a teacher, or play the piano, or ride a horse. However, one night changes everything. One of uncle Jacob’s dearest friends, Mr. Pollunder, invites Karl to spend some time at his house. Although the main character asks for permission, his uncle is displeased, and at midnight the very next day he informs Rossmann through a letter that he cannot tolerate such behavior and asks to never contact him again.
This event marks a new part of Karl’s life. He immediately leaves Mr. Pollunder’s house and heads to the nearest hotel, where he meets Robinson and Delamarche, two very poor men headed to Butterford in search of a job. Karl feels obligated to them, as they invite him to join them on their journey, and allows them to mistreat him. It can be seen how uncomfortable the main character is as he experiences bullying and a robbery from his new “comrades”. One of the very first incidents happens with salami that Karl brought from home. His new friends quickly find out about the treasured possession and demand to share. The main character does, but it turns into an unpleasant event, as he does not get a single piece “It seemed silly to beg for a piece, but he began to feel bitter.”. Similar situations keep happening, but Karl, in fear of being left alone, does not say a thing.
Soon, a new opportunity rises. After yet another fight with Robinson and Delamarche, Karl decides to end his journey with them and leaves for a hotel nearby. There, a Manageress, a nice lady in her fifties, suggests a job, which the main character happily takes. For some time, Karl’s life is busy with work, and newfound friends, especially the Manageress and Therese, an eighteen-year-old typist, whom he tries to visit as often as possible. However, his happiness does not last long as soon as Robinson visits him in the hotel and persuades him to come and visit him and Delamarche, as they now live with Brunelda, a singer. After his old friend’s visit at the hotel, Karl loses his job over something he did not do. He goes to his old comrades, and Brunelda, their host, makes Rossmann her server. However, this job does not last long, as Karl leaves again and, finally, finds himself a job in the Theater of Oklahoma, where he decides to go under a new name—Negro.
The book leaves us with a beautiful description of the view outside of the train cart “Masses of blue-black rock rose in sheer wedges to the railway line; even craning one’s neck out of the window, one could not see their summits; narrow, gloomy, jagged valleys opened out…”. Left with expectations and questions, the reader is left to wonder what happened to Karl, if he finds the strength to stand up for himself and change, or does he remain the same and soon flee the theater company.
“Amerika” intertwines the gravity of the described situation with the humorous notes that often can be found in Kafka’s works. While having many comic moments, the books manages to address serious issues, such as the reality of the lives of immigrants, the hardships of lives of commoners, and other Kafkaesque themes that are traced through all of his works.
The author started working on the novel in 1912, however, it was only published in 1927, three years after his death.
Reviewed by Yulia ’18