Kafka’s Nature Theatre of Oklahoma

by James Hawes


Kafka called his unfinished novel The Man Who Disappeared. But the fact that nobody outside academia does so is perfectly justifiable, and not just on the obvious grounds that if everyone had respected Kafka’s recorded utterances about his works as gospel, his major works would not exist. For all his flaws, Max Brod knew damn well what Kafka really wanted, and his title is bang on the money, for Amerika has a good claim to be the first attempt at the Great American Novel of the 20th century (and not just because it contains what is almost certainly the first description of Coca-Cola in “serious literature”).

Since Kafka never even saw America himself, this may sound like a strange claim, but his failed novel wonderfully encapsulates the myth of America, as seen from the outside, in the last decade when the gravitational centre of “Western Culture” (even to most Americans) was still Europe.

The story of Karl Rossmann—who travels Kafka’s imagined America as wide-eyed as Harry Potter in his first days at Hogwarts (and initially with a similar sense of almost magical privilege-by-birthright)—is that of a youth ejected from a traditional class-based structure (his sexual initiation back home having broken the bonds of social propriety) and sent to a place which is not only the land of freedom and opportunity, but also a convenient place to send people forever.

Not for nothing did Irish communities, right up to the dawn of cheap flights in the 1980s, hold “American wakes” for emigrants: the journey to the land of the free was generally assumed to be a one-way trip to a half-discovered country from where only postcards and money-orders ever returned. This myth of America as the land of (social) death and (personal) re-birth is as potent now as ever.

But the magic which insulates Rossmann at first soon fails, leaving him adrift in a world filled with hierarchies of dominance and subordination that differ from those in The Trial or The Castle only in that they are naked expressions of the power to hire ’em/fire ’em, untroubled by any of the ramshackle pretensions to metaphysical underpinning that are so striking in Kafka’s Old World power-structures. As Rossmann’s dreams fade, his infinite “flexibility” in the labour market is as ironic a commentary on a certain definition of “freedom” as you could wish.

And then comes salvation, in the form of the Nature Theatre of Oklahama (the manuscript misspells the name, having famously been taken by Kafka straight from the caption of a photograph depicting a white-on-black lynching). Here, everyone is going to be hired.

Nothing in the rest of the book has prepared us for the Nature Theatre, and the reason is simple: it scarcely belongs with the rest at all. Its genesis is separated by a gap that is not only chronologically substantial, but represents a great chasm in Kafka’s creative biography.

The body of Amerika belongs with the other 1912-13 works which, in the years of Europe’s last hurrah, won this well-connected, up-and- coming young millionaire’s son glowing reviews and the Fontane Prize (the status of which has been extraordinarily downplayed by Kafka’s hagiographers, as has the distinct whiff of insider dealing about how exactly Kafka came to get it). The Nature Theatre, though, is part of the same blaze of wartime creation that is witness to Kafka’s new concern with the public, organizational functionings of power, and which also yielded In the Penal Colony (which got by far the worst reviews of anything Kafka ever showed the public).

In the Nature Theatre, as in the Cathedral scene of The Trial (of which it is a clear relative), Kafka uses references to chiliastic Biblical imagery in expressing the hold that the vision has over the protagonist. In both, we find Kafka’s great insight, his creative USP, the breakthrough vision he had in The Judgment: the way in which we are ourselves suicidally complicit in constructing heavens we can never reach.

How can we simultaneously believe that a Doorman can be bribed—and that he holds the key to The Law? How can we believe that an organisation really can hire absolutely anyone who turns up—and yet not be completely disillusioned when the bureaucrats of that organization demand to see our banal, everyday papers?

Finding himself (fatally?) id-less at the moment of apparent salvation, Karl Rossmann, palpably sliding down the scale of hope, ends up calling himself Negro. He might just as well be called Clandestino, for his dilemma—and his all-too-human mental fudge—is exactly the same as that of the hero of French-Spanish pop singer Manu Chao’s irresistible hit:

Perdido en el corazon
De la grande Babylon
Me dicen el clandestino
Por no llevar papel

The use of religious imagery in describing a search for employment is the creatively vital mismatch, then as now. Like a modern Green Card-less migrant, Rossmann comes to the Nature Theatre somehow believing that it has the impossible capacity to absorb everyone’s demands for work and deliver everyone’s quasi-religious dreams—only to find that the Promised Land is barred, not by an angel with a flaming sword, but by a functionary insisting on a very earthly papel.

The Nature Theatre thus illustrates Kafka’s most central point: We modern, post-death-of-God people have fatally blurred our desire to be “taken up” by a Higher Power with our quotidian struggles in the grubby reality of a world. All of Kafka’s great protagonists—Rossmann, Samsa, Bendeman and the two K.’s—define themselves above all in terms of their work and yet feel the need for quasi- theological answers. But the physical and metaphysical worlds are (as in Kafka’s wonderful parable of the crows) by definition insulated one from the other. No power on earth can provide us both with the paycheck we need and the belonging we yearn for, not even that fantasy world of so many dreams, whether in 1911 or 2011 America.

James Hawes is the author of Why You Should Read Kafka Before You Waste Your Life and Excavating Kakfa. He teaches in London.

1. Translation via lyricstranslate.com: “Lost in the heart / Of the great Babylon / They call me the Clandestine / ‘cause I don’t carry any identity papers”