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Let My Kafka Go! Israel’s Ridiculous Ownership Claims


“Someone must have been telling lies about Josef K.,
he knew he had done nothing wrong but, one morning,
he was arrested.”

Franz Kafka,
The Trial

I doubt that anyone has read that devastating incipit from Kafka’s The Trial without feeling a bolt of emotion. In its naked simplicity, crude force and powerful arrangement, we see facets of an entire universe in one sentence, where an internal state of mind clashes head-on with a deed taking place. Where a sense of confusion and disparagement meets with the reality of an arbitrary act. The subject attempts to immediately rationalise and understand a situation of a grave personal violation, and we, the reader, without knowing anything at all, sympathise with him, basically under the assumption that whatever follows, we will be on his side. But there is an ambiguity contained even in this scene, an ambiguity that continues throughout the book with the presentation of mental states of guilt, resignation, retreat from clarification and in the end, stoicism that leads to the rejection of personal freedom. As we read, we alternately can identify with Josef K. and resign ourselves to fate or we want to shake him out of his complacency. We at times can even step into his shoes, put down the book and say to ourselves, “yes, this is true”. It is this emotional experience that effects us in a different way each time we face this book (and like all great books, gives us more upon successive reading), that makes the reading experience active, personal and vibrant.

The Trial could only begin with that evocative sentence, but what makes this book an ever-unfolding experience for those who have loved it is the fact that we really don’t know exactly how it would have read if Kafka himself published it and we can leave interpretative and narrative spaces to one day fill. On a literary level, we know that it was published posthumously and without explicit indications of its construction. It is written that the confusing way that Kafka had of organising his manuscripts led to an arbitrary arrangement of the chapters, and even the exclusion of “A Dream” in the corpus of the novel in the edition most of us know, is said by some to be a very bad judgment call made by Max Brod, who we shall be addressing shortly. Indeed, critical editions surface from time to time where speculations on the arrangement of the chapters emerge, including a particularly interesting one following the template of Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment”. There are editions that carry variations and where slight details are modified or even autobiographical footnotes that delight and inform the reader are inserted. Will we ever know the integral version of the book as the author may have intended it? That depends upon Israel. 

For scholars, being able to access the original manuscripts of writers is essential for quite a few reasons. First, one can see the evolution of the thought process by observing the construction of the phrases themselves, the cancellations, the notes, the possible choices that the author leaves for himself before arriving at a definitive solution, and secondly, because it gives historical valence to the work of art itself. Coming into contact with the original manuscript is as close as one can come to sitting next to a writer who clarifies things that are unclear or if we are lucky, he pulls back curtains that we didn’t even know were there so that we can see something different. I can say for myself that I had an epiphany two years ago while examining the original manuscript of one of the most important Italian poems “L’infinito” by Giacomo Leopardi. I was in a state of pure commotion as I saw with my own eyes and could feel his pen crossing off a word that was good, and changing it to one that was perfect… How could there have been “a version” of this poem that fuses the interior with the infinite? It was odd to feel that the sentiment expressed in that poem had an evolution. But realising that it did, and that it was a product of a dynamic human thought, a moment in time, and therefore ineffable and comprised of many facets, I entered for a moment into his mind, seeing how he was now confronting a reality, an incarnation of his thought, and refining it both within himself and beyond himself, just like the subject of the poem. It was a sensation of understanding of him that left me in awe, feelings that I hadn’t at that point experienced, even after years of reading and admiring his work.

Kafka himself is an interesting element as far as biography goes, and facts of his life are always mentioned in critical studies of his work, and therefore, documents that point to his life, even those that are personal such as letters and notes, add to the comprehension of his opus… and the controversy surrounding the disappearance or lack of access to his documents can only increase as his role as a precursor in existential literature and the testimony of Old Europe in its modernist struggle makes his work as contemporary as ever.

I personally have felt enormous attraction to him not only for intriguing aspect of the “double” existence he lead as a functionary at an insurance company by day and writer by night, but for something much more banal, the biographical similarities to my own family which help me to piece together a world that has been permanently dismembered and therefore, one I feel an irresistible but impossible nostalgia for. His family originated from the same village as part of my family did; there is the experience of leaving the village for Prague, the tuberculosis, infant mortality… all the stories that one hears about a private saga are there in a literary figure. Of course, he belonged to a different social class and even spoke a different mother tongue than my family did, but part of me believes something is there that can still give insight and drop tiny bits of information that can be examined as perhaps the missing piece, some little detail that fits in with things to make sense of the world that was remembered, but left unspoken. This itself explains to me one of the reasons I embrace him intimately, so that I could comprehend something about a world close to me, but only in an evocative way, bound in a shroud that is tightly sealed and forever distant. But there is a universal attraction to his work: the very ambiguity of his storytelling is oddly reassuring, because one knows there is always a chance for a new interpretation of the signs that take the connotations of a meaningful symbolic order that will one day unfold, leaving a promise and hope that all the absurdities will one day be logical. Although contextually there is the realisation that the deepest meaning is one that the reader gives, because the work itself is not one of redemption, and one can dig as deep as one wants, redemption will not be found there. Things are desperate, so what else is new?

And yet… one is swept within the womb of the human language, with its fragility and its force, believing that it is capable of expressing the hope of a different and more just world, even where that hope is never uttered.

Original Manuscript of Kafka's The Trial in Marbach

Kafka can mean a great deal to millions of people, and many of them want to gain more knowledge. This is possible, of course, through the study of the original manuscripts, and the library of Marbach in Germany has been the pilgrimage site of many a scholar. Yet, if Israel has its way, this manuscript will have to leave Europe, and be “returned” to Israel, as well as the rest of the Kafka documents that are hidden, have yet to be studied and are subject to a bizarre law of “Jewish heritage”, and because of that law, will probably never see the light of day.

Israel has a law which imposes that material that they consider “important to the Jewish people” be prohibited from leaving the country. The law even states that they will accept a photocopy… but we all know how trustworthy Israel is, and apparently, so do its citizens, and many are simply not caving in to this pressure. In fact, it is reasonable to imagine that thousands of documents of importance not only to the Jewish people, but to humanity as a whole, have taken the road of clandestine sales and then disappearance, in order for their owners to avoid being forced to relinquish them or sell them for a fraction of their value to the Jewish State. Unable to sell literary material to libraries and cultural institutions, (because no library is going to buy a photocopy of a document) ownership passes through secret sales and exportation or, in the case of the bulk of the manuscripts of Kafka, is stored somewhere, perhaps never to be seen.

Kafka never lived in Israel, nor did he visit. His confidante and doctor, Max Brod, did though, he took to Palestine all of the documents that Kafka had entrusted to him: with the promise that he would personally destroy them. Brod did no such thing, bless his soul, in fact, he made attempts to give some order to the manuscripts, and saw to the publication of six volumes of previously unpublished works, as well as having been his most supportive friend and intimately aware of both the literary Kafka and the human Kafka, and therefore the best suited to reconstructing, rather than destroying. I believe it was no mean feat to deny the will of his close friend, just as it must have been complicated to assemble the material. Helping him in this task was his own private secretary, Esther Hoffe, another Bohemian transplanted to the nascent Jewish State. Upon Brod’s death, entering into possession of the precious documents was Hoffe. She had been able to sell a few of the manuscripts abroad, but the deal was blocked moments before the documents were about to be transferred to their new owner. Upon her own death, her daughters became the owners of this material, and they have refused to surrender it to Israel. Law or not, they do not want to have the State expropriate or obtain for an unfair price something that they believe it has no rights to, or at least, this is what one might be lead to thinking for their resolve in not “collaborating” with the demands made on them to let the Jewish State be the arbiter and custodian of the manuscripts. Included in the group of documents are said to be Brod’s diary, some of Kafka’s drawings and the correspondence that he himself managed to not destroy. 

Once again, Israel is demanding rights to something that does not belong to them. In this case, it does not belong to them or to the Jewish people, and not even to the Hoffe sisters, but belongs to the legacy of Franz Kafka. If we consider his expressed wishes to have a ritual bonfire made of all his writing, and even Dora had burnt some of his stories and a theatrical piece upon his request, we can imagine that this entire situation would not have pleased him in the slightest. With the pressure being made to surrender this material under certain conditions, it is likely that the world may never have access to the material which is rumoured to be quite voluminous and varied, and the study of this giant in literature will remain hindered. All of this due to the Israeli need of claiming rights and ownership to something, for its absolute determination to horde everything that it thinks it has an “ethnic” right to. Is there such a thing as Jewish literature, and is it determined by style or by “blood”, and is Kafka an exemplar of it? Would Kafka himself have identified his work as being patrimony of “the Jewish people” or, would he have felt that others were playing with his fate, just like his most famous character Josef K. thought?

And, to the point, is it possible that a State can claim rights to material that was brought over from somewhere else, disregarding the fact that this State that did not even exist in Kafka’s lifetime, nor when Brod moved there in 1939? And further, is it not absurd that it is deciding that he is its representative and his handwritten work must remain on Israeli soil? It is implying that a writer whose material happened to find its way to Israel by contingent circumstances and not by election of the author, (who was already violated by the negation of his testament) is held hostage there as a symbol and confined to the status of “a Jewish writer” and if scholars want to study manuscripts, they have to go to Israel to do it, recognising first and foremost that the writer belongs to the State of Israel, then to the Jewish people, and incidentally, maybe is just a human whose entire life and culture was something else. Kafka was a European, a Bohemian, a part of that city of Prague that so totally coloured his perception no less than his travels in central Europe and northern Italy contributed to his attitude. Israel has nothing to do with his work, at least judging by the published material.

But Israel, just like it has done to the land of Palestine, decides to take what it wants and claims rights to it based on racial, religious and ethnic criteria. It denies the actual historical circumstances, and is hoping to rewrite history and within a generation, everyone will believe that Kafka was born in Tel Aviv and that he was a prominent figure in Jewish cultural affairs. It does not take a lot of work to construct a lovely “Kafka historical centre and library” where students will go to glance at the showcases and see multimedia exhibits while on their way to the gift shop.

This would indeed be a metamorphosis that would have terrified Kafka. Someone will be telling lies about Franz K.

Source: http://palestinethinktank.com/2009/12/09/let-my-kafka-go-israel’s-ridiculous-ownership-claims/ and Tlaxcala

Original article published on 9 December 2009

About the author

Mary Rizzo is a member of Tlaxcala, the network of translators for linguistic diversity. This article may be reprinted as long as the content remains unaltered, and the source and author are cited.

URL of this article on Tlaxcala: http://www.tlaxcala.es/pp.asp?reference=9469&lg=en


STORMING BRAINS : 10/12/2009