Franz Kafka, Master Tales
Manesse Bibliothek der Weltliteratur, 1978
"When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin." That is the beginning of the world-famous story "The Metamorphosis" (1915). It is about a young man, who has turned into a gigantic insect overnight and is avoided by his family from then on. His entire life has changed without his knowledge and suddenly turned into a nightmare. This is often the case in texts by the Prague writer Franz Kafka (1883-1924) and it is also the case in the stories of "Meistererzählungen".
Among others, we see a lonely Russian warden, living his miserable life in a railway station, two men who are desperately trying to prove the existence of a gigantic mole, a country doctor who is called to help a dying boy in the middle of the night, and an explorer who encounters a strange torture machine in a penal colony. One will quickly realise that Kafka's stories are indeed hard to digest. In most cases, a first-person narrator factually talks about a strange or scary situation in his life, which either leads to a tragic end or to no end at all.
The stories seem like dream scenarios or like fables with a deeper meaning, but that meaning is never revealed. One single event sets things into motion and the main characters can't do anything about it. Just like in Kafka's novels "The Trial" or "The Castle", there seems to be a higher order but it is never graspable to the protagonists. Gregor Samsa has to deal with the same problem, as he never really finds out, why he was transformed into an insect. With the exception of this one implausible premise, everything takes a completely realistic course. The situation has simply presented itself and nothing can be done about it.
While literary criticism has been fighting about the different interpretations of Kafka's oeuvre for years, one thing is certain: Kafka's texts fascinate people endlessly. After all, no other author could so brilliantly show his readers, what it means to be truly defenceless and truly unknowing. They painfully demonstrate the feeling of having no influence on things to come.
More than a century after publication, these stories have become more frightening than ever. Our world - even more than Kafka's world at the time - has become a place where the individual can no longer understand the bigger picture. One example for this would be the world of finance, which has turned into a nearly impervious structure of relations and speculations. Everyone is dependent on it but no one can understand it to its full extent.
It is the same with international politics, with federal unions or associations and their resulting dependencies. Everything seems to be getting more and more complex. Every political action calls for a multitude of reactions. The result? We live in a world, we can no longer comprehend and we are scared, because this world has gotten too big and too interconnected. It was this exact feeling that was anticipated in Kafka's writing and that is why his texts are so wonderfully and horribly powerful.