A Last Note From Milan Kundera On Kafka

This post overlaps with, and serves as a complimentary fragment to the posts here and here. I quote so much from Milan Kundera because his investigations are so diligent, and his findings sound so truly. As always, this is from The Art of the Novel.

First, an anecdote:

In one of his books, my friend Josef Skvorecky tells this true story:

An engineer from Prague is invited to a professional conference in London. So he goes, takes part in the proceedings, and returns to Prague. Some hours after his return, sitting in his office, he picks up Rude Pravo – the official daily paper of the Party – and reads: A Czech engineer, attending a conference in London, has made a slanderous statement about his socialist homeland to the Western press and has decided to stay in the West.

Illegal emigration combined with a statement of that kind is no trifle. It would be worth twenty years in prison. Our engineer can’t believe his eyes. But there’s no doubt about it, the article refers to him. His secretary coming into his office, is shocked to see him: My God, she says, you’re back! I don’t understand – did you see what they wrote about you?

The engineer sees fear in his secretary’s eyes. What can he do? He rushes to the Rude Pravo office. He finds the editor responsible for the story. The editor apologizes; yes, it really is an awkward business, but he, the editor, has nothing to do with it, he got the text of the article direct from the Ministry of the Interior.

So the engineer goes off to the Ministry. There they say yes, of course, it’s all a mistake, but they, the Ministry, have nothing to do with it, they got the report on the engineer from the intelligence people at the London embassy. The engineer asks for a retraction. No, he’s told, they never retract, but nothing can happen to him, he has nothing to worry about.

But the engineer does worry. He soon realizes that all of a sudden he’s being closely watched, that his telephone is tapped, and that he’s being followed in the street. He sleeps poorly and has nightmares until, unable to bear the pressure any longer, he takes a lot of real risks to leave the country illegally. And so he actually becomes an émigré.

Then: a precise detailing of what might be meant by the “Kafkan”, and further notes on Kafka’s prophecies.

The story I’ve just told is one that would immediately call Kafkan…But what is the Kafkan?

Let’s try to describe some of its aspects:


The engineer is confronted by a power that has the character of a boundless labyrinth. He can never get to the end of its interminable corridors and will never succeed in finding out who issued the fateful verdict. He is therefore in the same situation as Joseph K. before the Court, or the Land-Surveyor K. before the Castle. All three are in a world that is nothing but a single, huge labyrinthine institution they cannot escape and cannot understand.

Novelists before Kafka often exposed institutions as areas where conflicts between different personal and public interests were played out. In Kafka the institution is a mechanism that obeys its own laws; no one knows now who programmed those laws or when; they have nothing to do with human concerns an are thus unintelligible.


In Chapter Five of The Castle, the village Mayor explains in detail to K. the long history of his file. Briefly: Years earlier, a proposal to engage a land-surveyor came down to the village from the Castle. The Mayor wrote a negative response (there was no need for any land-surveyor), but his reply went astray to the wrong office, and so after an intricate series of bureaucratic misunderstandings, stretching over many years, the job offer was inadvertently sent to K., at the very moment when all the offices involved were in the process of canceling the old obsolete proposal. After a long journey, K. thus arrived in the village by mistake. Still more: Given that for him there is no possible world other than the Castle and its village, his entire existence is a mistake.

In the Kafkan world, the file takes on the role of a Platonic idea. It represents a true reality, whereas man’s physical existence is only a shadow cast on the screen of illusion. Indeed, both the Land-Surveyor K. and the Prague engineer are but the shadows of their file cards; and they are even much less than that: they are the shadows of a mistake in the file, shadows without even the right to exist as shadows.


Raskolnikov cannot bear the weight of his guilt, and to find peace he consents to his punishment of his own free will. It’s the well-known situation where the offense seeks the punishment.

In Kafka the logic is reversed. The person punished does not know the reason for the punishment. The absurdity of the punishment is so unbearable that to find peace the accursed needs to find justification for his penalty: the punishment seeks the offense.


The tale of the Prague engineer is in the nature of a funny story, a joke: it provokes laughter.

Two gentlemen, perfectly ordinary fellows (not “inspectors” as in the French translation), surprise Joseph K. in bed one morning, tell him he is under arrest, and eat up his breakfast. K. is a well-disciplined civil servant: instead of throwing the men out of his flat, he stands in his nightshirt and gives a lengthy self-defense. When Kafka read the first chapter of The Trial to his friends, everyone laughed, including the author.

In speaking of the microsocial practices that generate the Kafkan, I mean not only the family but alo the organization in which Kafka spent all his adult life: the office.

In the bureaucratic world of the functionary, first, there is no initiative, no invention, no freedom of action; thee are only orders and rules: it is the world of obedience.

Second, the functionary performs a small part of a large administrative activity whose aim and horizons he cannot see: it is the world where actions have become mechanical and people do not know the meaning of what they do.

Third, the functionary deals only with unknown persons and with files: it is the world of the abstract.

To place a novel in this world of obedience, of the mechanical, and of the abstract, where the only human adventure is to move from one office to another, seems to run counter to the very essence of epic poetry. Thus the question: How has Kafka managed to transform such gray, antipoetical material into fascinating novels?

The answer can be found in a letter he wrote to Milena: “The office is not a stupid institution; it belongs more to the realm of the fantastic than of the stupid.” The sentence contains one of Kafka’s greatest secrets. He saw what no one else could see: not only the enormous importance of the bureaucratic phenomenon for man, for his condition and for his future, but also (even more surprisingly) the poetic potential contained in the phantasmic nature of offices.

But what does it mean to say the office belongs to the realm of the fantastic?

The Prague engineer would understand: a mistake in his file projected him to London; so he wandered around Prague, a veritable phantom, seeking his lost body, while the offices he visited seemed to him a boundless labyrinth from some unknown mythology.

The quality of the fantastic that he perceived in the bureaucratic world allowed Kafka to do what had seemed unimaginable before: he transformed the profoundly antipoetic material of a highly bureaucratized society into the great poetry of the novel; he transformed a very ordinary story of a man who cannot obtain a promised job (which is actually the story of The Castle) into myth, into epic, into a kind of beauty never before seen.

By expanding a bureaucratic setting to the gigantic dimensions of a universe, Kafka unwittingly succeeded in creating an image that fascinates us by its resemblance to a society he never knew, that of today’s Prague [Art of the Novel was published in the 1980s, when the Soviet Union still existed, Czechoslovakia still existed, and Prague was behind the iron curtain].

A totalitarian state is in fact a single, immense administration: since all work in it is for the state, everyone of every occupation has become an employee. A worker is no longer a worker, a judge no longer a judge, a shopkeeper no longer a shopkeeper, a priest no longer a priest; they are all functionaries of the State. “I belong to the Court,” the priest says to Joseph K. in the Cathedral. In Kafka, the lawyers, too, work for the Court. A citizen in today’s Prague does not find that surprising. He would get no better legal defense than K. did. His lawyers don’t work for defendants either, but for the Court.

In a cycle of one hundred quatrains that sound the gravest and most complex depths with an almost childlike simplicity, the great Czech poet [Jan Skacel] writes:

Poets don’t invent poems
The poem is somewhere behind
It’s been there for a long long time
The poet merely discovers it.

For the poet, then, writing means breaking through a wall behind which something immutable (“the poem”) lies hidden in darkness. That’s why (because of this surprising and sudden unveiling) “the poem” strikes us first as a dazzlement.

Kafka made no prophecies. All he did was see what was “behind.” He did not know that his seeing was also a fore-seeing. He did not intend to unmask a social system. He shed light on the mechanisms he knew from private and microsocial human practice, not suspecting that later developments would put those mechanisms into action on the great stage of History.

The hypnotic eye of power, the desperate search for one’s own offense, exclusion and the anguish of being excluded, the condemnation to conformism, the phantasmic nature of reality and the magical reality of the file, the perpetual rape of private life, etc. – all these experiments that History has performed on man in its immense test tubes, Kafka performed (some years earlier) in his novels.

The convergence of the real world of totalitarian states with Kafka’s “poem” will always be somewhat uncanny, and it will always bear witness that the poet’s act, in its very essence, is incalculable; and paradoxical: the enormous social, political, and “prophetic” import of Kafka’s novels lies precisely in their “nonengagement,” that is to say, in their total autonomy from all political programs, ideological concepts, and futurological prognoses.

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