“Not every child has the endurance and fearlessness to go on searching until it comes to the kindliness that lies beneath the surface.”
Franz Kafka, Letter to his father
The legend about Kafka as a tormented man with a very acute sensibility is well known. Franz Kafka is one of the first modern writers to ask himself the great questions about human existence, about our lives. The logical consequence is that everyone considers the Prague writer as a gloomy person, dominated by the bad, sometimes cynical: a man who has known the dismay of taking off the mask on our common human destiny and seeing the true and tragic face behind.
It is undeniable that the atmospheres of Kafka novels are really sinister, full of bad omens, as burdened by swollen, dark clouds that very often pour relentless their load of misfortune. Think about Josef K., the protagonist of The Trial, who sees his anxieties materialize in the labyrinth of a tribunal, where it’s impossible to extricate himself; or about The Metamorphosis‘ Gregor Samsa, who wakes up one morning and realizes that he has turned into a huge bug.
These examples would be enough to explain how true, but also how reductive, is to lock Kafka in the stereotype of the tormented writer. Kafka uses the images of his torment and drags them out of the metaphor. As David Foster Wallace explains, “Kafka’s humour — not only not neurotic, but anti-neurotic, heroically sane — is, finally, a religious humour, a harrowing spirituality. That makes Kafka’s wit inaccessible to children whom our culture has trained to see jokes as entertainment and entertainment as reassurance”. This is the comedy of Kafka: to feel different, excluded, forsaken, “like a cockroach”, to transform this metaphorical image into the protagonist of a story: the unfortunate Gregor Samsa.
It should be clear that, behind the widespread conception of a gloomy and pessimistic Kafka, a much more complex personality is hidden: an ironic and sensitive Kafka who expressed in his books his own discomfort to accept such a cruel life, as the one experienced by mankind.
To better understand the personality, could be useful to highlight one of the most famous legends circulating around his figure: something so curious to inspire even a book, Kafka and the Doll Traveler written by the Spanish writer Jordi Sierra i Fabra. This book tells the story of one of the last adventures that would have occurred to Kafka just a year before he died. When he lived in Berlin, Kafka used to walk around Steglitzer Park. One day – basing on the legend- Kafka met a little girl, won by the tears that flowed like rivers on his face, because she lost her doll. Softened by her tears and unable to remedy the pain by finding the doll, the writer invented a different solution to calm down the girl: as Kafka explained her, the doll had left for a long journey, but she had not forgotten her, and there was even a letter that the doll wrote her, a letter which Kafka had at home.
Back home, he started writing the letter with the same feverish commitment he had poured into the pages of his masterpieces. For some time, Kafka will continue to write letters that will console the girl, fascinating her with tales about the incredible journey of her doll, letting the pain disappear in the dreamy folds of the stories invented by this gentleman. One day the girl got her doll back. It was a different doll of course, bought by Kafka as a last gift for her, but the different aspect was explained to him: the journey changed it.
This story has been told by the partner of the writer, Dora Diamant. There is also an animated short film, Kafka’s Doll (you can see the poster above). As a matter of facts, it is not clear whether this story is true or it’s simply an uplifting tale that has grown around the figure of Kafka. What really matters is to highlight how a story like that is plausible. Beyond the sinister halo that often continues to surround, in widespread opinion, this ingenious writer, over this blanket hides an acute and sensitive man, ironic and unable to surrender to the cruelty of human destiny. A man who never stopped to go on searching, until it comes to the kindliness.
Fabrizio Cotimbo writes stories about literature and more on Ossimoro and Auralcrave. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.