A couple of days ago I was trying to explain the implications of the adjective Kafkaesque to a friend of mine. I haven’t read any of Kafka’s work; however, I have read a lot about them. And like Orwell, his themes and ideas, and the mood and atmosphere evoked by their orchestration are now such a significant part of the literary, if not popular, imagination, that one could get a feel for them just by reading about them rather than reading them. (This, however, is not true of all authors who have attained a permanent place in the pantheon of the literary imagination or popular imagination or both. But I’ll comment on this in a separate post in order to avoid a digression.) Serendipitously, I have had the good fortune to have read Jorge Luis Borges, John Updike, and Roberto Calasso on Kafka. Of these, Borges’s and Updike’s critiques are the most insightful, while Calasso’s is certainly the most imaginative.
So what, then, is Kafkaesque? Just as Orwellian evokes an atmosphere of dystopian totalitarianism, Kafkaesque evokes a mood and atmosphere of fear and paranoia in a climate of endless procrastination and infinite absurdity. Typically, a process is initiated for an absurd or unfathomable cause and once initiated is either endless by its very nature, or is endlessly delayed. As Updike points out,
Kafka was obsessed with building, with work that is never done, that can never be done, that must always fall short of perfection.
It could be argued that these are largely themes confined to his novels, The Trial and The Castle. However, as Updike observes, about, what is perhaps Kafka’s most famous short story, The Metamorphosis,
His themes and manner were now all in place. His mastery of official pomposity–the dialect of documents and men talking business …
In fact, Updike’s earlier comment, too, pertains to a short story, The Great Wall of China; however, its themes are also, unmistakably, the themes of the novels.
Many critics and readers have drawn attention to Kafka’s prescience in anticipating (some would say prophesying) the climate of fascism that, in his time, was poised to spread throughout Europe. How right! For what is Fascism, but the bureaucratic institutionalization of systematic delays in justice mechanisms for patently absurd causes? However, the tedium of bureaucracy is only a simulation, or more precisely, an approximation of the Zeno’s paradoxical sense of the infinite that pervades Kafka’s nightmarish worlds. And it is this that elevates his works to the surreal realm of Kafkaesque fables, parables, and fantasies.