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Franz Kafka: Amerika

Originally called Der Verschollene (The Man Who Disappeared) , this is Kafka’s first novel. The sixteen-year Karl Rossmann is sent to America because he got a servant girl pregnant. This novel is not so depressing as the two later ones but is does start with an injustice. The first chapter, called The Stoker, is about an injustice done to a poor stoker on the ship Karl came over on. Karl at first defends the stoker but then, when his rich uncle comes to fetch him, he leaves with the uncle. It was as though there was no longer a stoker. Karl moves to his uncle’s house and, while he is comfortable, he is in an ambiguous situation – ambiguous sexually (implied homoeroticism and Clara, daughter of one of his uncle’s business associates)and also ambiguous because the environment is decidedly surrealistic – kafkaesque, one might say. The house, the environs and, in particular, the people, while not as ominously threatening as they are in the two later novels, are decidedly disquieting.

Karl and his uncle fight and Karl has to go off and earn his own living, where he meets two dubious characters – the Irishman, Robinson, and the Frenchman, Delamarche. He starts working in a hotel and starts to get caught in a kafkaesque situation. But just when it starts looking interesting, Kafka drifts away. Karl seems likely to head off to Oklahoma but the manuscript is incomplete and we never find out whether he gets there.

This novel is not a great novel but interesting in that it foreshadows some of the themes to be found in his later work, in particular the sense of being controlled by strange, unknown forces, the surrealistic sense of alienation and seemingly irrational events that control our lives. And Kafka’s view of America which, of course, he never visited but learned to know only from books is also fascinating.

Publishing history

First published 1927 by Kurt Wolff Verlag
First English translation 1946 by Schocken
Translated by Edwin Muir, later edition by Michael Hofmann