Metamorphosis and other.., p.20
Metamorphosis and Other Stories,
A Message from the Emperor
The Emperor has – it is claimed – sent you a message on his deathbed, to you, you alone, you miserable subject, the tiny shadow fleeing as far as it can from the imperial sun. He asked he messenger to kneel down at his bedside, and whispered the message in his ear; and it mattered to him so much that he had the man say it back to him. By nodding he affirmed that that was what he had said. And before all the massed spectators at his dying – all the obstructing walls were knocked through, and on the wide and lofty staircase the great figures of the empire stood in a ring – with all these people watching, he dispatched his envoy. The envoy set off straightaway; a strong man, tireless; now putting out one arm, now the other, he clears a way through the crowd; if he encounters any resistance, he points to the emblem of the sun displayed on his chest; he gets ahead easily, better than anyone else. But the crowds are so great; their abodes are never-ending. If a path opened before him, how he would fly, and ere long you would hear the majestic pounding of his fists on your door. But instead, how futile are his efforts; still he is forcing his way through the apartments of the inner palace; never will he have put them behind him; and if he succeeded there, still nothing would be won; he would have to battle his way down the stairs; and if he had succeeded there, still nothing would be won; he would have to cross the courtyards; and after the courtyards, the second, outer palace; further staircases and courtyards; another palace; and so on for thousands of years; and once he finally plunged through the outermost gate – but this can never ever be – then the imperial city will still lie ahead of him, the middle of the world, piled high with its sediment. No one can make his way through there, much less with a message from a dead man. – But you, you will sit at your window and dream of it as evening falls.
The Worries of a Head of Household
There are some who say the word Odradek comes from the Slavic and they look for its etymology there. There are others who say it’s a Germanic word, merely inflected by the Slavic. The doubt surrounding both versions forces one to conclude that neither is true, especially as neither is any help in finding a meaning for the word.
Of course, no one would bother themselves with such questions, were it not that there is a real being called Odradek. One’s first impression of it is of a flat, star-shaped reel of thread, and indeed it appears to have thread entwined in it; admittedly, only broken old pieces of thread, in all sorts of colours and thicknesses, knotted or even tangled together. But it’s not a reel, since a little rod emerges from the centre of the star, and this rod has another rod going off it at right angles. With this rod on one side, and one of the points of the star on the other, the whole thing is able to stand upright as on two feet.
One might be tempted to believe this structure had once had a practical form, and was merely now broken. This doesn’t seem to be the case; at least there are no indications of it; nowhere are there beginnings or broken places that would suggest something of the kind; the whole thing looks functionless, but after its fashion complete. There is not much more to be said about it, other than that Odradek is extraordinarily manoeuvrable and impossible to catch.
He stays by turns in the attic, on the stairs, in the corridors, and in the entry-way. Sometimes he isn’t seen for months; then he must have gone on to some other building or buildings; but he inevitably always comes back to our building. Sometimes, when you step out of the door, and he’s just leaning against the banister, you feel like talking to him. Of course, you don’t ask him any difficult questions, but treat him – his tiny size a further inducement – like an infant. ‘What’s your name?’ you ask him. ‘Odradek,’ he says. ‘And where do you live?’ ‘No fixed address,’ he says, and he laughs; the sort of laughter you can only produce if you have no lungs. It sounds like the rustling of fallen leaves. And that’s usually the end of the conversation. Incidentally, he may not even give you that much of an answer; often he is silent for long periods, as silent as the wood he seems to be fashioned from.
In vain I ask myself, what will happen to him. Can he die? Everything that dies has once had a sort of aim, a sort of activity, which has worn it out; this is not the case with Odradek. Will he therefore one day tumble down the stairs before the feet of my children and my children’s children, trailing a line of thread after him? It’s clear he does nobody any harm; but the notion that he might even outlive me is almost painful to me.
I have eleven sons.
The first is very unappealing to look at, but smart and serious-minded; and yet, although I love him as I love all my children, I don’t have a very high opinion of him. His thinking strikes me as too simple. He doesn’t look to either side, and he doesn’t see very far; in the small orbit of his thought, he is forever going round in circles or, rather, turning on his own axis.
The second is handsome, slim, and well-knit; it is a delight to see him in fencing pose. He is smart too, and worldly-wise; he has seen a lot, and so seems to get more out of our local flora and fauna than do those who have never left the parish. But I’m sure this asset is not wholly or even largely attributable to his travelling; it is just one of this lad’s inimitable characteristics, as anyone can see, who would try to copy his multiply twisting and yet still wildly controlled dives. Courage and will-power take the imitator as far as the end of the board, but then, instead of leaping, he suddenly sits down and shrugs his shoulders apologetically. – But in spite of that (I suppose I ought really to be proud of such a child) my relationship with him is not unclouded. His left eye is a little smaller than his right, and has a tendency to blink; a minor flaw, of course, and one that gives his face an added touch of boldness. No one could hold this smaller, blinking eye against him, in view of the consummate perfection of his being. I, his father, do so. Of course, it’s not the physical flaw that pains me so much as a somehow corresponding irregularity in his mind, a sort of poison wandering in his bloodstream, an incapacity to round off and perfect the gesture of his life as it’s visible only to me. It is just this quality, in turn, that makes him a true son of mine, because this flaw is the flaw of our whole family, just very obvious in this son.
The third son is also handsome, but it’s not a handsomeness I like. It’s the handsomeness of a singer; the curved mouth; the dreamy eye; the head that requires a backcloth to take full effect; the immoderately deep chest; the hands that flutter up readily and sink all too easily; the strutting legs that do not really carry him. Beyond that, his voice is not full; it flatters for a moment; causes the connoisseur to prick up his ears; then swiftly fades. – Even though everything about him might be said to incline one to show him off, I prefer to leave him in obscurity; he for his part does not thrust himself forward, not indeed because he is sensible of his flaws, but out of innocence. He feels himself to be a stranger to this age; as though he belonged to my family, but also to another one besides, which is lost to him in perpetuity; often he is melancholy, then nothing can cheer him up.
My fourth son may be the most sociable of them all. A true child of his time, everyone understands him, he stands on the same ground as everyone else, and everyone is tempted to nod to him. Perhaps through this universal acknowledgement his being has gained in lightness, there is a freedom in his movement, an insouciance in his judgements. One would like to repeat some of his sayings to oneself, admittedly only some, because all in all he does suffer from an excess of levity. He is like one who leaps admirably aloft, parts the air like a swallow, only to end up dismally in the dust, a zero. Such thoughts take the edge off my pleasure in this child.
The fifth son is good and kind; he promised much less than he delivered; was so unassuming that one felt alone in his company; and yet has attained a degree of respect. If I was asked how such a thing came about, I would hardly know what to say. Perhaps innocence is the quality best able to make its way through the turmoil of warring elements in the world, and he is certainly innocent. Innocent perhaps to a fault. Friendly to everyone
My sixth son seems, at first glance anyway, to be the profoundest of them all. He hangs his head, but remains a chatter box. He’s not easy to grasp. If he is on the losing side, he lapses into an invincible sadness; if he comes out on top, he stays there by dint of further chatter. Even so, I would not deny that there is a certain selfless passion to him; even by day he sometimes struggles in his thoughts as in a dream. He is not ill – his health is actually rather robust – but he sometimes seems to stagger, particularly towards the end of the day, but he doesn’t need help, and doesn’t fall. Perhaps it is something to do with his physical development, because he is much too big for his age. That makes him unpleasing as a whole, in spite of strikingly attractive details, his hands and feet, say. His brow is also unappealing; both its skin and the form of the bone strike me as somehow shrivelled.
The seventh son is maybe more mine than all the others. The world does not appreciate him; it doesn’t understand his particular type of humour. I’m not one to overestimate him; I know he’s very limited; if there was nothing wrong with the world beyond the fact that it didn’t appreciate him, it would still be a perfect world. But in the context of the family, I would not like to be without this son. He brings with him a certain unrest, but also respect for tradition, and combines them, at least to my way of thinking, in one impeccable whole. Then, admittedly, he does not know what to do with this whole; he is not about to set the wheel of the future in motion; but his orientation remains blithe and optimistic; I wish he had children, and his children had children. Unfortunately, there seems to be little sign of this coming about. In his understandable but still hardly desirable self-satisfaction – something, I have to say, greatly at variance with the judgements of his surroundings – he goes around by himself, doesn’t seem to care about the girls, and still never loses his good humour.
My eighth son is my pain child, and I don’t really know why. He looks at me strangely, and yet I feel a close paternal association with him. Time once again has been a healer here; it used to be that I would start to shake the moment he came into my mind. He ploughs his own furrow; has broken off all ties to me; and I have no doubt that with his hard skull and his small but athletic body – he used to have a weakness in his legs when he was younger, but maybe that’s sorted out by now – he will get through wherever he wants. Often I feel an inclination to call him back and ask him how he is, why he has cut himself off from his father, and what he intends to do, but by now he is so distant, and so much time has passed, that things may as well stay the way they are. They tell me that he, alone of all my sons, has grown a beard; a beard is never a good idea on such a short man.
My ninth son is very stylish and has a melting look for the ladies. So melting that it is even capable on occasion of seducing me, even though I know that it takes nothing more than a wet sponge to dab away all that unearthly lustrousness. The striking thing about the boy is that he is not by nature a seducer; he would be perfectly content to spend his life stretched out on the sofa, and expend his glances on the ceiling, or, better yet, leave them buried under his eyelids. Once he’s in the recumbent position he favours, he speaks fluently and not too badly; vividly and pithily; albeit within narrow limits; once he exceeds them, which is bound to happen given how tightly drawn they are, his conversation becomes completely vapid. One is tempted to gesture to him that it is enough, if one had any hope that his sleepy gaze would notice.
My tenth son has a reputation for dishonesty. I want neither to deny the accusation nor to confirm it. What is undeniable, though, is that anyone seeing him approach, with a formality that bears no relation to his time of life, invariably in a buttoned-up coat, in an old, but ever so carefully spruced-up black hat, with immobile features, slightly jutting chin, his eyelids bulging a little over his eyes, two fingers sometimes held against his mouth – anyone seeing him so will think: the man is an arrant hypocrite. But then listen to him speak! Insightfully, with care, economy; with a wicked vivacity disregarding questions; in astonishing, natural and joyous agreement with the world; an agreement that causes him furthermore to stiffen his neck and hold his head high. There are many who think themselves pretty smart and therefore felt repelled by his appearance, who have been powerfully affected by his speech. Then again, there are others who are indifferent to his appearance, but who find his speech hypocritical. I, as his father, am unwilling to decide between them, but I will admit to finding the latter school of thought has just the better of it.
My eleventh son is delicate, and must be accounted the weakest of my sons; but deceptive in his weakness; he is perfectly capable at times of being strong and resolute, but even then there is a sense of underlying weakness. Not a weakness to be ashamed of, but something that only in this world appears as weakness. Doesn’t the ability to fly, for instance, conform with weakness of a sort, involving as it does unsteadiness and fluttering and vacillation? It is something of the sort with my son. Of course a father is not best pleased with such qualities; they are evidently to the detriment of the family. Sometimes he looks at me, as if to say: ‘I’ll go with you, father.’ And then I think to myself: ‘You’d be the last man I’d entrust myself to.’ And then his look seems to say: ‘Well, then at least I’ll be the last.’
These are my eleven sons.
It has been established that the murder happened as follows:
At about nine o’clock in the evening, a moonlit night, Schmar, the murderer, took up his position on the corner where Wese, the victim, would turn out of the street where he worked, into the street where he lived.
Chilly, bitingly cold night air. But Schmar was wearing only a thin blue suit; the jacket even unbuttoned. He felt no cold; also he stayed on the move. He kept the murder weapon, half bayonet, half kitchen knife, unsheathed, in his hands. Held the knife up against the moonlight; the blade glittered; not enough for Schmar, who struck it against the brick paving, striking sparks; possibly regretted it; as if in contrition, he drew it like a violin bow along his bootsole, meanwhile standing on one leg, leaning forward, listening to the sound of the knife and the fateful side-street.
Why did the independently wealthy Pallas tolerate all this, watching the whole from his window on the second floor? Answer me that! With his collar up, his dressing-gown belted round his expansive form, he looked down and shook his head.
Five houses further along, diagonally opposite him, Frau Wese, with her fox-fur over her negligée, was looking out for her husband, who was taking an uncommonly long time to come home tonight.
At last the bell over the door to Wese’s office rang out, too loud for the bell over a door, sounding across the city, up to the sky, and Wese, the industrious night-worker, still unseen from this street, announced only by the bell, left the building; the paving stones begin to count his authoritative strides.
So as not to miss anything, Pallas leans far out of his window. Frau Wese, calmed by the bell, closes hers. Schmar, however, drops to his knees; since nothing else about him is bare, he presses face and hands against the stones; everything is freezing, but not Schmar.
At the point of intersection of the two streets, Wese hesitates, then points his cane down into his home street. A whim. The night sky has brought it on, so much dark blue and gold. Ignorantly he looks at it, ignorantly he doffs his hat and sweeps his hair back; nothing up there reconfigures itself to indicate what will be; everything remains in its meaningless, inscrutable place. Perfectly reasonable, on the face of it, for Wese to walk on, but he walks into Schmar’s knife.
‘Wese!’ shouts Schmar, up on tiptoe, his arm extended, the knife sharply lowered, ‘Wese! Julia waits in vain!’ And Schmar lets him have it, once in the throat, and twice in the throat and a third time low into the belly. Water-rats, slit open, emit similar sounds to Wese.
Pallas, choking down the poisons welling through his body, stands in the portals of his house. ‘Schmar! Schmar! Seen every thing, not missed a thing!’ Pallas and Schmar eye one another. Pallas is contented, Schmar isn’t sure.
Frau Wese, with a throng of people following her at either side, hurries up, her face aged with terror. Her fur splits open, she drops on to Wese, the negligée-clad body is for him, the fur coat closing over the pair of them like turf over a grave is the crowd’s.
Schmar, biting back the last of his nausea, presses his mouth against the shoulder of the police constable, who light-footedly leads him away.
Josef K. dreamed:
It was a fine day, and K. wanted to go for a walk. No sooner had he taken a couple of steps than he found himself in the cemetery. There were thoroughly artificial, impractically curving paths there, but, following one such path like a rushing torrent, he found himself bobbing evenly along. In the distance he spotted the fresh mound of a grave, where he meant to stop. The grave seemed almost to mesmerize him, and he thought he couldn’t get there quickly enough. Sometimes, however, he could hardly see it, covered as it was by banners, whose cloth twisted violently and slapped against other banners; he couldn’t see the flag-bearers, but he had a sense of there being great jubilation.
Metamorphosis and Other Stories by Franz Kafka / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes