art in all its forms

art in all its forms


Reading Kafka in Port of Spain*

By Andre Bagoo

Letters to K, by Anu Lakhan (Argotiers Press / toof press, Port of Spain, 2018)

Franz Kafka in 1906.

SOMETHING about the planes. They draw him in. Perhaps it’s the drama, the epic struggle of the airmen fighting to get their machines off the ground. It gives him hope when it comes to his writing. Yet, leave the excitement of this air show in 1909 behind and fast forward to his deathbed decades later, in 1924, when he is editing ‘The Hunger Artist’. The joy of ‘The Aeroplanes at Brescia’ is gone. Instead, Franz Kafka gives us the story of a man nobody believes, a man unable to escape suspicion no matter his sincerity, a hero grounded and made subject to the merciless, never-ending gaze of onlookers, who dies miserably in a cage. The metamorphosis is complete. 

What happened to him? The mysterious menace that pervades Kafka’s work clouds our understanding of his life. We are tempted to believe he was miserable, dying at the relatively young age of 40. He starves to death. He has a form of tuberculosis that seals his throat. His three sisters Ellie, Valli, and Ottla are murdered during the Holocaust by the Nazis. Had he survived he too might have met the gas chamber. 

But just as his novels are left incomplete, so too Kafka’s life story. More manuscripts, more diaries, more pieces of correspondence are destined to emerge. For decades they have been subject to a legal battle, scattered in bank vaults and safes in Israel and Switzerland thanks to Max Brod’s secretary Esther Hoffe. Yet, even if Kafka the man is yet to fully come out, some readers can already sense what town knows. Here is a writer deeply concerned with the oppressive power of the deep state; who fears autocrats as much as he fears fathers; who exudes queer sexual desire but must hide it. This is the world in which Anu Lakhan’s new chapbook Letters to K, complete with drawings by Kevin Bhall, arrives. 


ON ONE simple sentence, Kafka builds the most convincing depiction of the oppressive power of the surveillance state ever written.

“Someone must have been telling lies about Josef K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning,” begins The Trial. Josef K. is never told the charge against him, officials arresting him do not bother to show a warrant, guards do not identify themselves. The terror of these passages is so extreme it can easily cross into comedy. Yet, reading them in a country like this one, where journalists can be detained and their offices and bedrooms searched on the say-so of a justice of the peace; where reporters may be interrogated as to sources by official Parliament committees; where judges may issue bans on publication of stories that do not yet exist; where the state’s surveillance apparatus can be turned by political actors to target individuals in the media and elsewhere under secret processes—all of it comes too close to home. This is a work of fiction that understands a simple truth. The state will always be more powerful than the individual. Read in the context of the state's co-option of a range of mass data-collection techniques, it asks: What happens when the surveillance apparatus is applied to innocent, helpless and hapless subjects? 

Kafka's work, like the famous story 'Metamorphosis', gives us terror that crosses into comedy.

We may be tempted to give a simple answer. Nothing. But in piece after piece, Kafka suggests it is the dignity of the human being that is at stake. Innocents have nothing to hide, but they become second-class by nature of the unfair power dynamic. A whole class of citizens is created, turned into sheepish subjects. Not in on the joke, they become zoo animals—like those scattered throughout Kafka’s corpus. It gets worse. In ‘The Hunger Artist’ once a suspicion is raised against an individual, it becomes a permanent stain, even if there is a presumption of innocence. The hunger artist bends over backward to try to win the audience over. In addition to not eating, he throws in entertainment. 
Sometimes he overcame his weakness and sang during the time they were observing, for as long as he could keep it up, to show people how unjust their suspicions about him were. But that was little help. For then they just wondered among themselves about his skill at being able to eat even while singing.
As in The Trial, we are in a world where the state does not admit the possibility of error, where panoptic surveillance is regarded as authoritative and infallible even if produced or analyzed in defective ways. It becomes impossible for an ordinary person “to fight against this lack of understanding, against this world of misunderstanding.” And the deeper the state’s invasive reach becomes, the more secret and inaccessible it is to the individuals directly affected by it. The opening of another novel, The Castle, can be read as a metaphor for this complete lack of recourse:
It was late in the evening when K. arrived. The village was deep in snow. The Castle hill was hidden, veiled in mist and darkness, nor was there even a glimmer of light to show that a castle was there.
The Castle’s hero K., The Trial’s Josef K., Karl in Amerika—Lakhan’s title could well be an indirect reference to them all. (Her letter writer, “J_ L_”, is perhaps Josef L., an alphabetical progression of Josef K.) Yet, the letters are addressed not to these characters but their maker. Their whimsy taps into Kafka’s comic undercurrents in a way that draws attention to the darker elements of his writing. Which is fitting for a poet whose beguiling poetry veers between light and dark, the delicate and the ferocious, and now, the lyrical and epistolary.

Lakhan has written precursors to these poems, versions in which the correspondence is conducted via email. Both the earlier and the latest iterations differ in form from her sparse but unforgettable poems published in journals like The Caribbean Review of Books, Town and produced for the Caribbean Literary Heritage project. For the latter, she conducts a conversation with another dead writer, Eric Roach. Dorothy Parker, too, has been written to, all in a manner that draws attention to the grave in order to transcend it. In poem after poem, she lampoons and venerates the ego, tenderly and with wit. Though different in form, Letters to K retains this vein. 


KAFKA’S shorter pieces, such as ‘Metamorphosis’ and the Meditations, are so charged with bleak symbolism that they can rightly be classed as verse, sitting alongside Baudelaire’s prose poems. “Kafka,” says Saul Friedländer, “was the poet of his own disorder”. While Letters to K is described as “an epistolary narrative” by its publishers, it's worth considering whether this is a chapbook of prose poems. “A prose poem is a poem without line breaks,” suggests Jeremy Noel-Tod in his introduction to the recently-published The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem. “Beyond that, both its manner and its matter resist generalization.” The great American poet James Tate offers, “by the end of a prose poem, a revelation or epiphany of some sort has been achieved”. Both would seem to apply. Additionally, there is no reason why letters cannot be poems. Letters to dead writers more so! In the end, the author’s choice of form points to the fact that all art is a kind of memorial. And letters, like small time-capsules, have an inherent drama. They mimic the performance of the human personality over time. Like poems, they don’t need an audience to bring satisfaction to their creator. “Letters have always felt like dreams to me,” Lakhan’s protagonist writes. “The dream, with its inner logic, understands itself.”

Notable too is the fact that Kafka was drawn to Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, an assortment of prose writing that seeks to present a philosophy of life. The form of this early work is important, as it likely influenced Kafka’s own embrace of fractured narratives. Such an embrace is fitting for a writer whose queerness has been largely left under the radar. 

Much is made of Kafka's multiple engagements with women, his ritualistic visits to brothels, his strange sublimation of his sexuality in his writing—all of which are obvious indicators that more is going on beneath the surface. 

Kafka had gay dreams, was excited by male erotic bonding and wrote prose charged with homoeroticism, such as the opening chapter of his novel Amerika. If his failed engagements, his botched heternormative performances, are not clear enough signs, he tells us: “If I want to arouse disgust in myself, I need only imagine putting my arm round a woman’s waist.” His queerness hides in plain sight, making passages in Letters to K about K’s seemingly failed love life pregnant with meaning.


ALSO pregnant with meaning is the moment in Letters to K when the letter-writer hints at family estrangement in terms that suggest she or he might be visiting from the afterlife:
I have always felt an outsider, even in the house I grew up in. I used to love walking through it when everyone else was asleep (it was almost impossible that I would actually be alone). The house itself was a greater friend than the occupants. Why was I haunting a sleeping house? 
In addition to giving us one way to read the piece as a whole, this draws attention to Kafka’s own troubled relationship with his family, specifically his father. In the famous Letter to His Father, Kafka addresses Hermann Kafka, penning a lengthy indictment against the father’s “unceasing reproaches”. In one childhood incident, Hermann punishes Franz for asking for a glass of water by locking him on a balcony. 

“As a father you have been too strong for me,” writes the younger Kafka. “Even years afterward I suffered from the tormenting fancy that the huge man, my father, the ultimate authority, would come almost for no reason at all and take me out of bed in the night.” This fear of his father clearly inflects his sensitivity to the power of the state. “For me you took on the enigmatic quality that all tyrants have whose rights are based on their person and not on reason,” Kafka writes. Tellingly, he presents a spectrum that would be dramatically replicated in all of his work:
The world was for me divided into three parts: one in which I, the slave, lived under laws that had been invented only for me and which I could, I did not know why, never completely comply with; then a second world, which was infinitely remote from mine, in which you lived, concerned with government, with the issuing of orders and with the annoyance about their not being obeyed; and finally a third world where everybody else lived happily and free from orders and from having to obey.
Ironically, Kafka gave this letter to his mother to give to his father. But his mother never gave the letter to its intended recipient. In a similar vein, Letters to K is destined not to reach its dead subject. Instead, this lively chapbook’s fate is to reach all of us. 


Letters to K is available at Paper Based Bookshop

* With apologies to Vahni Capildeo, 'Reading Dante's Inferno in Port of Spain'. Post expanded on 10.03.2019.