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11 Apr 2011

{book} Amerika


This unfinished first work tells the story of a sixteen-year-old boy, Karl, emigrating from Europe to New York, USA. We journey with Karl through a series of absurd and unfortunate events. Amerika is an impressionistic satire of the alleged 'promised land' of wealth and success.

Franz Kafka's Amerika, is one of those novels, I believe, that is better appreciated for it's significance of theme than for enjoyment of story. Kafka's working title was, roughly translated, The Man Who Disappeared. A significant difference to his editor's choice as it is telling of Kafka's own existential desire to break free from a life of obligations.

David Copperfield. [the 1st chapter] as sheer imitation of Dickens, the projected novel even more so. The story of the trunk, the boy who delights and charms everyone, the menial labor, his sweetheart in the country house, the dirty houses, et al., but above all the method. It was my intention, as I now see, to write a Dickens novel, but enhanced by the sharper lights I should have taken from the times and the duller ones I should have got from myself. Dickens’ opulence and great, careless prodigality, but in consequence passages of awful insipidity in which he wearily works over effects he has already achieved.
Franz Kafka, Diary

Unlike Dickens' protagonist, Karl is aimless and allows himself to drift and be pushed through his journey by the whims of others. Likewise, the plot seems to meander without direction.

Kafka was a master at dissecting the social landscape. As a story though, Amerika can leave us readers with the feeling of, meh. It reads easily and has good doses of humour, but lags and flounders, and often seems irrelevant. And of course, it has missing sections and is unfinished. As a commentary however, it is an astute observation of social power, freedom, social forces, social order (Kafka makes a beautiful use of the machine as a metaphor for the social machine, or system) and the idealization rather than realisation of happiness.

This unrealistic tale though is not a platform for social critique. Kafka is an existential dissector of our thematic lives and a dismantler of our social structures. His Theatre of Oklahoma, where, “Everyone is welcome!”, is a vast metaphor for the whole of America.

‘So then you’re free?’
‘Yes, I’m free,’ said Karl, and nothing seemed more worthless than his freedom.

This is his first novel and not quite yet Kafkaesque - the unreal tale is impressionistic rather than surreal. So in that respect it can be an easier read than his later works, but you can't claim to have truly tasted Kafka on the strength of this one alone.

Peter Mendelsund's upcoming cover design. 
The script is an amalgam of Kafka's own hand

Kafka's Amerika is a literature student's dream - I could write pages and pages on the themes, metaphors, social analogies and so forth. Yet I can only recommend this novel to such readers who enjoy socio-philosophical works of significance. I give it 3 stars for its importance, but as far as enjoyment goes, I'll suggest it's more a 2.


  1. What a great review! The only Kafka I've read is The Metamorphosis. I really enjoyed it when I read it, though I don't know that I understood all there was to understand.

  2. Interesting review, Monica! I haven't read the word 'meh' in a review in a while :) I guess even masters like Kafka have to go through the learning curve and acquire the required experience before they can churn out masterpieces. I like that dialogue snippet that you have quoted about freedom. So beautiful and profound!

  3. I like your ratings of the book and I see you very much appreciated the theme of the book other than its enjoyment.