Sunday, 11 September 2011

K is for Kafkaesque

The term Kafkaesque suggests surreal, nightmare-like situations, which have a malign sense of foreboding underpinning them. Kafka's stories included: the dystopian, particularly political and social nightmares (the powerless immigrant, the arrestee); the surreal punishment (like Poe's The Pit and the Pendulum, later beautifully taken off by Rhys Hughes's The Fury Machine); the magic realist take on gritty blue-collar life (Metamorphosis). We have come to see in his works the Orwellian dystopia, the surreal nightmare and the hopeless daily struggle, but in his wide range of works he combined a relentless realism and a beautiful elegance of language that made him one of the giants of 20th Century literature.

Many of Franz Kafka’s characters suffer at the hands of a bizarre and tragic fate, but just because their circumstances aren’t familiar doesn’t mean we feel any less when misfortune befalls the characters. The absurdity adds to the sense of hopelessness that surrounds them.

In Metamorphosis Kafka turns the hard-working and exploited Gregor Samsa into an insect. Gregor’s freeloading family quickly forget all the sacrifices he made for them once he assumes such a shocking and, to them, repulsive form. In this way, Kafka weaves a gritty but intensely detailed magical realism by twisting one element in reality and then taking the situation that ensues very seriously. It's a beautiful story, horrifying in its inhumanity, but astonishing in its attention to detail and emotional engagement.

Kafka switches from positioning the enemy within to one without in The Trial, when the main character K. is victim to a dark, totalitarian dystopia where bureaucracy and secrecy means that nobody knows what’s really going on, but of course, the little guy is made to pay the price regardless. This is political speculative fiction par excellence: warning at the dangers that lack of transparency in politics and judicial process hold for our civilization.

These works highlight what’s quintessentially Kafkaesque: the murky, unclear threat befalling a regular, relatable character. This danger is life-threatening, and in both these examples, terminal.

The most Kafkaesque piece of art I have experienced is David Lynch's film, Inland Empire, with its oppressive soundtrack, the shadowy lighting and the horrible and demeaning fate of the female lead, Nikki Grace / Sue. As Nikki / Sue suffers one horror after the next, the film takes on a hallucinogenic quality as the plot goes down a series of rabbit holes (one really does include rabbits), disorientating the viewer. Nikki / Sue loses everything she has and just when she thinks things can’t get any worse she finds out ‘rock bottom’ has a false bottom... Like Mulholland Drive, Inland Empire explores the shadow side of the Hollywood dream.

One of TFF’s stories that strikes me as particularly Kafkaesque is Kemistry by Terry Grimwood. The main character, Judy, is plunged into a dangerous situation that she doesn’t understand, one that in turn opens out into an even worse, lifelong nightmare as she is forced to return to her violent ex-husband.

Kafka’s works are beautifully written thanks to his poetic language, innovative styles and story structures, not to mention his creativity and artisanship. He never sacrifices medium to message, which may be his most enduring legacy to world literature.

All of the elements we identify as Kafkaesque in literature—the grim, dystopian setting; the attention to detail and unflinching realism; the range of story structures and willingness to experiment; the masterful proficiency with language and style; the keen awareness of social detail and political observation—are things we would like to see more of in TFF. We don’t insist that a story be dark and gritty, but we also don’t expect every socio-political piece to have a happy denouement. So don’t try to emulate one of Kafka’s short stories; rather follow his example and use beautiful language to warn of hazards in a surreal and dream-like way... Use elements such as beautiful language, surreal and dream-like features or gritty realism to comment on political agendas or warn of the dangers in our civilization.

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