Book Review: Amerika by Franz Kafka

After reading Franz Kafka’s complete short stories last year, I was determined to read the three novels that were published posthumously. I find Kafka to be a tremendously interesting writer and literary figure, and after reading most of his work, the recurrent themes became evident.

Amerika was published in 1927, three years after Kafka’s death. Max Brod, his literary executor, chose the name Amerika for the unfinished novel. Kafka had published the first chapwter separately as “The Stoker” during his lifetime, and the book is known by other names, such as The Missing Person, The Man Who Disappeared and Lost in America.

Like all of Kafka’s novels, the plot doesn’t make much sense. That’s kind of the point, though. People don’t love Kafka because of intricate plots; they love him because of the bizarre and dream-like scenarios in his works.

Amerika was no different. It tells the story of young Karl Rossman, a 16-year-old European immigrant. Karl sails over to the U.S. and gets himself tangled in weird situations as he tries to settle into his new country. He meets a rich uncle he never knew he had at the beginning of the book, and the uncle takes him under his wing. However, the uncle disowns him abruptly after Karl makes a slight mistake in etiquette.

Karl then meets a couple of drifters who promise they can find him work but, instead, take advantage of him. He gets away from the drifters, gets a job at a hotel, but then loses the post after another minor mistake.

In the last chapter, Karl attempts to join a traveling theater known as The Nature Theater of Oklahoma after seeing an advertisement. The theater promises to hire anyone who wishes to join, and it seems to symbolize Karl’s dreams of hope and fulfillment in America.

Karl interviews for a job during a surreal chapter, which is eventually cut short. The novel, after all, was unfinished and abandoned by Kafka.

The logic of a dream

So, what are we to make of Amerika?

Most of the plot has the logic of a dream or, better yet, a nightmare. Like Kafka’s other novels, I find it interesting how the protagonist is on a kind of hero’s journey and after a goal that seems impossible to reach. In Amerika, Karl’s dream is to become an independent and self-supporting man in his new country. But at every step of the way, people are out to get him and throw a wrench in his plans.

Apparently, Kafka told his friends the last chapter where Karl joins the Nature Theater of Oklahoma would end with a reconciliation and victory. Since the novel was unfinished, it ends abruptly and leaves more questions than answers – the type of Kafkaesque puzzle I’ve come to love.

The menacing presence of authority figures is another theme in Amerika and Kafka’s other works I’ve noticed. Amerika begins with Karl explaining his parents disowned him after he was seduced by a housemaid. Throughout the novel, Karl is an obedient and kind person, and he continually is afraid of the authoritarian figures who push him around.

Kafka never visited the real America, but it’s said he was very fascinated by it. He based much of the novel on things he’d read about the U.S. and the experiences of relatives and friends who’d emigrated there. The novel then is less about America and more about Kafka’s dream version of it.

I’m glad I read this one and finished Kafka’s three novels. His books aren’t the easiest to read, but there are some funny moments. The Trial is my favorite of Kafka’s novels, but I recommend checking Amerika out, too.

(Cover photo from Wikimedia Commons – A photo of Franz Kafka from 1923)

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