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Short Stories, Franz Kafka, ‘In the Penal Settlement’, and ‘The Giant Mole’

In the Penal Settlement is the first in the series of stories in this collection that considers more than one character in any depth. The explorer, the officer, the soldier and the condemned all undergo a transformation as the story unfolds; told in third person, limited to the explorer, the story evolves as the penal settlement is about to abandon use of “a remarkable piece of apparatus.” (p.169). The apparatus is used to kill the condemned: those who have been sentenced to death arbitrarily, without recourse to due process. The punishment of death suffered by those guilty of even the most minor of infractions.

The condemned and the officer swap places, bizarrely the officer dies on the apparatus, we are shown the grave of the old commandant, and witness the explorer fleeing the island in fear of his life, after having watched the officer kill himself on the apparatus. The explorer does however succeed in his mission of helping to repeal the death penalty. The parallels in this story with themes explored in The Burrow could be said to be the idea of confinement, living in the burrow in fear, and both the burrower and the condemned coping with death as an everyday occurrence.

In juxtaposition to the morose and lurid tone of In the Penal Settlement, The Giant Mole is a humorous tale concerning the alleged sighting of a giant mole, said to be three feet in length. A paper is written about the sighting by an old teacher. One of this teacher’s pupils, and the narrator of the story, produces a pamphlet concerning the same giant mole; this causes tension between the teacher and former pupil. In this story Kafka considers the binaries of the serious and the absurd, age against youth, and city against country in order to highlight the contrast between recorded history and parochial anecdotes.

The link between The Giant Mole and The Burrow is obvious, in that the unknown predator, like a giant mole, lives underground. However, the voice of The Giant Mole is both witty and, at times, sarcastic. The narrator’s observations and cool analysis of the elderly, as he sees them, is particularly cutting:

“Most old people have something deceitful, something perfidious, in their dealing with people younger than themselves; you live at peace with them, imagine you are on the best of terms with them, know their ruling prejudices receive continual assurances of amity, take the whole thing for granted; and when something decisive happens and those peaceful relations, so long nourished, should come into effective operation, suddenly these old people rise before you like strangers, show that they have deeper and stronger convictions, and now for the first time literally unfurl their banner, and with terror you read upon it the new decree. The reason for this terror lies chiefly in the fact that what the old say now is really far more just and sensible than what they said before; it is as if even the self-evident had degrees of validity, and their words now were more self-evident than ever. But the final deceit that lies in their words is this, that at bottom they have always said what they are saying now.” (p. 212)

This acidic observation, made from the perspective of the dismissive younger man, consists of just two sentences. This sentence length and the almost wordy descriptive detail is typical of the style of prose in this collection of stories. The ideas explored in The Giant Mole, concerning the reliability of memory and the recording of events, have a postmodern feel to them. The “unpardonable confusion of identity” (p. 210) is a precursor to the simulacrum considered in postmodern works by Auster, Swift, Morrison et al. There is a consideration of the reliability of written records and the way in which they can be manipulated by the withdrawal of competing ideas. The narrator, in his pamphlet,

“had expressly declared that the teacher must stand for all time as the discoverer of the mole – and he was not even that – and that only my sympathy with his unfortunate fate had spurred me on to write.” (p. 207 ).

Here we see ideas concerning the reliability and accuracy of history; postmodern ideas concerning the reliability of the grand narratives of history, like those considered many year later by Kurt Vonnegut, in Slaughterhouse 5, for example, in the context of the fire-bombing of Dresden.

The style of Paul Auster in voice and narrative is reminiscent of Kafka. The absurdity of The Giant Mole is a device used by Auster in texts such as The Music of Chance (building a wall) and Mr. Vertigo (in which a boy can fly). The ideas explored by Heidegger, who likened human existence to “being found”, are also considered by Kafka, most obviously in Metamorphosis and Investigations of a Dog. Likewise Paul Auster in Tales from The Scriptorium uses the device of a man finding himself in an environment of which he has no immediate memory.

The common thread is that the reasons for the characters finding themselves in their current surroundings are unclear. Thereafter the affect that his has on the subjects is studied in minute detail. Both Kafka and Auster describe their characters’ motivations and observations in such fine detail as to cause the reader to empathise with how those characters must feel. Using this evocative technique Kafka is able to garner sympathy from the reader for a giant insect in Metamorphosis. Both styles involve a carefully crafted use of language; the sentences are long, involute but not tautologous. There is occasional reference back to what has been said; themes are revisited. Of course Auster is most concerned with the loss of identity suffered by the simulacrum that people his novels; Kafka is not concerned with identity in this collection so much as environment, isolation, and, to a lesser extent, the effect of cities and crowds on individuality. Of course Auster echoes these themes in works such as Moon Palace, in which the main character ends up sleeping rough in Central Park and losing his identity as well as his grasp of reality; similarly in City of Glass, in which the detective, Daniel Quinn (who may be the hero of Tales from the Scriptorium), ends up sleeping in an alley for months keeping watch on an empty apartment. During his self-imposed exile he is transformed completely, loses his home, his money, and his identity; eventually Quinn disappears into the city, merging with it.

In this collection Franz Kafka is exploring the binaries of mind and body and the relationships between the two. He also considers the nature of language in the labyrinth of The Burrow. He considers human relationships, and in particular isolation, rejection and loneliness. He also examines our attitudes towards suffering, illness, old age and death. The prose is precise yet verbose, finely chiselled each word is as if carved with precision and care. As if written from the viewpoint of a survivor who has been rescued; years later to tell his tale, embellished with minute detail and careful characterisation. Of all the stories, for me at least, The Giant Mole is the funniest; Investigations of a Dog the most challenging; Metamorphosis the most emotive.

Kafka, F (1961) Metamorphosis and Other Stories, Penguin Modern Classics: London

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