Originally published in The Paris Review on September 14 2016.
Three what by Kafka? Truthfully, I don’t know how best to categorize the trio of prose nuggets below. I’m tempted to call them parables—each is succinct and appears to illustrate some truth—but Kafka himself undoes that notion in the first fragment, drawing a meaningful line between the lessons of allegory and those of real life. And yet Kafka’s writing is so effective because it plays within an area of overlap between the two worlds. The result, of course, is the Kafkaesque, a mode that is entirely unto itself. “It would be a fallacy,” writes Peter Wortsman, the editor and translator of Konundrum, from which these fragments are excerpted, “to insist that his fables and parables, or whatever literary label we may apply, are really about anything, i.e., that they correspond to states of reality extant outside the tenuous confines of a solitary psyche, or that they carry a clearly decipherable moral.”
In Konundrum (forthcoming next month), Wortsman has gathered remnants of Kafka’s various writings—letters, journals, posthumously published and unfinished stories, newly translated tales—from which we have selected three. These jottings come from Kafkas’s posthumous papers, and each was titled by his friend, biographer, and literary executor Max Brod. —Nicole Rudick
Many complain that the words of the wise are always only presented as parables, useless in daily life, and this is all we have. When the wise man says: “Get thee hence,” he does not mean that we should go to the other side, a task we could in any case easily accomplish were the crossing worthwhile, he rather means for us to hasten to some fabled yonder that we don’t know, a place moreover which he cannot describe any more precisely, and which is perfectly useless to us here and now. What all these parables really mean to say is just that the incomprehensible is incomprehensible, and that much we already knew. But what we wrestle with every day, that’s something else.
To which a wise one said: “Why do you resist? Were you to follow the wisdom of the parables, you yourselves would become parables, and would thereby be relieved of the burden of everyday toil.”
Another one said: “I bet that that’s a parable too.”
Whereupon the first one said: “You win.”
To which the second said: “But only figuratively speaking.”
Said the first: “No, in reality; figuratively speaking, you lose.”
GIVE IT UP!
It was very early in the morning, the streets were clean and deserted, I was on my way to the train station. When I compared the time on a clock tower with that on my pocket watch and realized that it was already much later than I thought, I really had to rush, the shock at this discovery made me suddenly uncertain as to the right direction, I didn’t yet know my way all that well in this city. Fortunately, spotting a policeman nearby, I ran up to him and breathlessly asked him the way.
He smiled and said: “You want me to tell you the way?”
“Yes,” I said, “since I can’t figure it out for myself.”
“Give it up, give it up,” he said, and turned away with a great swing of the body like people who want to be alone with their laughter.
Poseidon sat at his desk and crunched numbers. The management of all bodies of water was a humongous task. He could have hired as many helpers as he liked, and he already had quite a few, but since he took his job so seriously and double-checked all calculations, all his underlings were of little use. It cannot be said that he took pleasure in the work, he only did it out of a sense of duty; he had, in fact, already applied more than once for a more gratifying task, as he put it, but every time he was presented with various alternatives, it turned out that nothing suited him as much as his present position. It was also very difficult to find something else for him to do. One could not very well assign him the management of a single sea; notwithstanding the fact that here, too, the actuarial task was no more manageable, just more nit-picking, the great Poseidon could after all only be assigned a top-tier management position. Whenever he was offered work outside the aqueous domain, the very prospect made him feel queasy, his godly breath wavered, his mighty chest quavered. Truth to tell, his disgruntlement was not really taken all that seriously; when a mighty one vents his spleen, there is no other recourse but to pretend to humor him, even in the case of such a hopeless matter; no one ever seriously envisioned releasing Poseidon from his post; since time immemorial he was destined to be god of the seas, and that’s the way it would always be.
What annoyed him the most—indeed the principle source of his displeasure with the job—was the image mankind made of him forever gadding about with his trident in the tides. While all the while he sat there in the watery depths endlessly crunching numbers, a trip every now and then to check in with Jupiter was his only break from the eternal monotony, a journey from which, moreover, he generally returned in a rage. He hardly ever got a chance to enjoy his journey through the seven seas, just sped through them on his way to Olympus, never pausing to look around. He liked to joke that he was waiting for the end of the world, then he’d find a free moment right before the end, after completing his final calculation, to take a quick spin in the sea.