Isn’t that Awkward? On What’s Missing in Franz Kafka’s “Amerika”

There are (and have been) countless television shows which make it obvious to the viewer that a character – in this or that situation – has done something awkward. Think, for instance, of Parks and Recreation, Workaholics,  Curb Your Enthusiasm, or The Office. Saturday Night Live makes it a staple, and just about every Judd Apatow or Seth Rogen film follows suit. The point of such staged awkward situations is to show how – despite our identification with this or that comic character who says the wrong thing, does the wrong thing, or misses the cue – the social context predominates over every situation.

In American life, social cues have become all important. While this indicates that Hollywood writers want Americans to be more socially conscious of what they say and do, it also suggests something more problematic; namely, the fact that what is or is not socially acceptable is already interpreted. The camera shots at faces of onlookers – in the wake of this or that faux pas – indicate to the viewer that something awkward has just happened and that we, as intelligent, socially aware viewers, should take on a position of superiority. Although the excluded comic character is endearing, the process of exclusion – though comical – is the focus.

In contrast to television sitcoms, we are fortunate to have a literature which gives the reader the option of freely deciding what is or is not awkward and an opportunity to think about what that decision means. Franz Kafka’s novel, Amerika is a case in point. His main character Karl Rossmann offers the reader such an option and gives the reader a moment to think about what is at stake with the presence or the absence of awkwardness.

Unfortunately, many of us don’t know how to read literature anymore and when we are faced with such an opportunity, we pass it by. I would suggest that today, more than ever, we need to take such an opportunity up. We need to question this preponderance of awkwardness and its implications. Is awkwardness something that should be seen as moral or ethical? Is our laughter at the awkward a form of social exclusion? Or is awkwardness a more somber kind of experience or mood?

The first chapter of Amerika comes from a story that Kafka worked, reworked, and published while he was alive: “The Stoker.” What is so fascinating about this chapter is the fact that, as a reader, I cannot but be surprised to notice Kafka’s decision to leave his character undeveloped and unmotivated. Moreover, I am also astonished by the fact that the narrator also seems to be lacking a clear understanding of things while, at the same time, acting as if he does. In other words, Kafka wrote this text in order for the reader to ask serious questions not only about the character but about the narration.

The first thing that should strike the reader is the fact that when Karl Rossmann arrives on the shores of America and should be excited to leave he remembers that he has forgot his umbrella. His absent mindedness predominates and he goes on a wild search for his umbrella. On his search, he stumbles across “the Stoker.” The Stoker treats Rossmann like a friend, shares his woes with him, and enlists him in his cause which is against a “Romanian” named Schubal (the Stoker is German). Rossmann gladly accepts the charge and wants to help this hospitable stranger. While the situation is unusual, we still partially identify with the kindness of these characters and Rossmann’s willingness. However, the identification is partial because it is ridiculous. How could Rossmann be so trusting or naïve? And shouldn’t he be more concerned or excited about arriving in America instead of defending someone he never met?

Awkwardness can happen between two people, but, for it to be really effective, it requires the presence of more than two. The scene in which Rossmann appears in front of the ship’s crew members to defend the Stoker is awkward.

When Karl enters the scene, he doesn’t even get to make any case. All he says is, “Yes, I know, I know…You’re quite right, I never had the slightest doubt about it”(19).   About what? The context is missing and the men are “indifferent,” they don’t seem to feel that there is anything like a trial going on. Before he can fill in any blanks, he is immediately asked a question: “So what’s your name?”

Right when he’s about to answer the question, a knock comes at the door. It’s Schubal.

The narrator is more responsive than Karl. She makes the situation more awkward because she takes this ridiculous situation and its possible consequences seriously while Karl does not. It is obvious that Karl Rossmann is blind to so many things, but the narrator makes it seem possible that he could haveacted differently:

Why had Karl not foreseen something so easily foreseen, namely, that Schubal would finally be obliged to come, if not of his own initiative then on a summons from the captain? Why hadn’t he devised a precise battle plan as he walked over with the stoker instead of mercilessly unprepared simply because there was a door there? Could the stoker still speak, say yes and no, as he would be required to do in the cross examination that would take place only if everything turned out for the best. The stoker stood there, legs apart, knees slightly bowed, head raised slightly, and the air went in and out of his open mouth as if he had no lungs left inside to handle his breathing. (21)

The reduction of the whole scene to the Stoker breathing “as if he had no lungs left” indicates the gross lack of intelligence in this scene. The fact of the matter is that Karl is just moving around with the Stoker and standing in the midst of what he imagines is a trial but, in reality, is just a bunch of people in a room.

To make things more awkward, while the narrator notes that “Still, Karl felt stronger and more alert than he had perhaps ever felt at home,” s/he is anxious and asks a series of questions:

Would they change their mind about him? Set him down between them and praise him? And then, only once, take a look into these eyes, eyes that were so devoted to them? What uncertain questions and what an inappropriate moment to be asking them! (21)

The obvious irony is that the narrator feels awkward, not the character.

And although Karl feels “stronger and more alert,” Schubal makes the case and speaks in a clear, articulate manner. The narrator, not Karl, gets frustrated and attempts to criticize the words of Schubal but the attentive reader can see that such criticisms are desperate. The narrator – breaking narrative convention – wants her character to “get moving” and get involved:

All this was very clear and indeed that is how Schubal had presented it, quite against his will, but one had to tell the story to the gentlemen in a different way, even more explicitly. They had to be given a jolt. So get moving, Karl, and at least take advantage of the time before the witnesses enter and inundate everything. (22)

Immediately after the narrator’s wishful thinking on behalf of her character, something happens which displaces the whole “trial.” The captain speaks to “Mr. Jakob,” the “man with the bamboo stick,” and who is also called “the senator” and seems to be a part of the crew. Mr. Jakob turns to Karl and asks, once again, “So what’s your name?” After Karl tells him, everyone in the crew is “astonished”(23). It seems as if something awkward is about to happen.

Mr. Jakob repeats the word “But” twice and says “But then I am indeed your uncle Jacob, and you are my beloved nephew. Just what I expected all along”(23). At this moment, the entire scene changes and all the narrator’s expectations are dashed. Karl realizes that he “does have an uncle Jakob in America.” The fact that he realizes this is also astonishing. Doesn’t he have a relative who is supposed to be meeting him when he arrives? Shouldn’t he know his name?

The most awkward thing of all is the Uncle’s retelling of Karl Rossmann’s story. It seems as if Karl is unable to say it himself. He is spoken for. Moreover, it is an awkward story because it gives too many details of things that need not be said in public. Recalling Karl’s sexual encounter which, apparently, is the reason why his parents sent him away, the narrator recounts why Karl was innocent but uses too much detail acting as if he was there when all this happened:

“Karl, oh my Karl,” she cried, as if she could see him and was confirming that she now had possession of him, whereas he could see nothing and felt uncomfortable under the many warm bedclothes that she had evidently heaped up especially for him. Then she lay down beside him and wanted him to tell her secrets, but he had none to tell, and she became annoyed, whether jokingly or in earnest, shook him, listened to his heart, offered him her breast so that he too could listen but did not induce Karl to do so, pressed her naked belly against his body…it felt as if she were a part of him. (27)

Karl, strangely enough, doesn’t feel awkward at all. And neither does the narrator. The fascinating thing for the modern reader is to experience the lack of awkwardness. It confronts the reader with a question: aren’t there times when a person should feel awkward – in this case both the narrator and the character, Karl Rossmann?

The question, it seems, is rhetorical. The answer to this question and our desire to see such awkwardness indicate one of two things and this, I think, is what Kafka was after. The sense of guilt or shame that comes with awkwardness are a valuable thing because they alert us to something important about being human. The mood of awkwardness goes hand in hand with the desire we have, as readers, to speak out and tell the Uncle to stop or to tell the narrator to say something. Their silence is, in a way, dehumanizing. It may all seem comical, but the truth of the matter is that sometimes awkwardness is not – as it is in so many TV shows and films – a formula for getting higher ratings or ticket sales. And it should not be used to affirm a regime of social control.

Rather, awkwardness, as articulated in Kafka’s Amerika – by virtue of its absence – provides the reader with a sense of humanity and of the power literature has to evoke morality. But this can only be discovered if we become more critical readers. Without questioning narrators and characters, we lose out on a great opportunity to learn how awkwardness truly matters.    And without doing this, our awkwardness is scripted and decided on – for us – by this or that TV show.   Reading Kafka in a critical manner, you, the reader can take the initiative by deciding on the meaning of awkwardness for humanity.   As Walter Benjamin once said to Gerschom Scholem in a letter written near his death, Kafka was “certain” about only one thing; “that a fool can help.”  The “question, however, is whether a fool can do humanity any good.”  That is the awkward question that may be missing from Kafka’s Amerikaonly because we must ask it.

Crossposted with Schlemiel Theory.


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