Book Review: The Metamorphosis and other stories by Franz Kafka

The first thing to note is that this is not a single novel but a collection of short stories, of which The Metamorphosis is the longest. I’ll review each story in turn. Another thing that ought to be noted is the translation. This is known as the “Dover Thrift Edition” and the introduction states, “These new translations, in idiomatic modern American English, attempt to be more complete and correct than the old British versions”. This instantly arouses suspicion, and these are well-founded as the text is riddled with spelling and grammatical errors which does spoil the enjoyment a little.

The Judgement

The collection opens with this little skit between a man and his bed-ridden father. The judgement of the title is the condemnation that the father passes down to the son at the very end of the story. This is not a particularly captivating story and I didn’t really see much depth in it, so won’t say any more.

The Metamorphosis

The longest story in this collection is really quite bizarre. The premise, given in the first sentence, is that a man wakes up and finds he has suddenly turned into a giant bug. Unwilling to show himself, he hides in his room and evades his family and his boss who comes to find him. When he does eventually reveal himself his family reject him, and he is confined to his room.

The story can be read on several different levels, which is why I think it has enduring appeal. On the surface, it could be just a piece of weird fiction where one element is distinctly sci-fi but all else is normal. Given that the man was a travelling salesman, it can also be read as the dehumanising process that modern business can have on people. If the focus is shifted to his family, then we could also see it as a parable on how disabled people are treated.

There are some incongruities in the story, though this may be due to the Americanised translation. Specifically, these relate a wound that appears on his side which is never explained and also later on in the story there are hints that his insect form has shrunk somewhat, though it is never made explicit. It is perhaps these ambiguities that ensure there is always room for debate.

In The Penal Colony

In my opinion, this was the best story of the collection and is more provoking than the more famous story above. It revolves around a torture/execution instrument. A visitor to the penal colony is shown his this machine works with the help of an officer who works there and is loyal to the old governor. The new governor is not convinced that the use of the machine has any future, and this was why he invited the visitor to inspect it.

The machine is described in some detail which I shan’t go into here. In short, a person is strapped naked, face-down on a table and a board with lots of needles on it hangs just above, and swings about, with the needles etching out a pattern on the person’s body. The pattern they etch out is related to the crime for which they are accused (though, as is very Kafka-esque, they are not informed beforehand what it is they are accused of). The injuries are always fatal.

[Spoiler alert]

Having explained how the machine works with a great deal of fondness for it, the officer begins to second-guess the purpose of the visitor’s inspection. He here begins his own defence of why it is necessary, but in so doing gives the condemnation himself. In an act that has strong resonances with that of the Easter passion, the officer pardons a prisoner mid-way through his sentence, strips naked and subjects himself to the machine. Only whereas before the the device etched out patterns in the back that were related to the crime, the setup is tampered with by the officer so that it simply punctures and impales him. He takes the punishment that was owed to a prisoner and puts it upon himself in the most brutal manner.

Only this time, there is no resurrection. The story is left hanging somewhat, but the richness of the story leaves the reader’s mind whirring with thoughts.

I fully expect to come back to this in the future, though it is not for the squeamish.

A Country Doctor

This is the shortest story of the collection and tells of a doctor as he does his rounds in a rural region. Much like the first story, there is very little of interest here and it can be skipped over without missing anything of any importance or interest.

A Report To The Academy

The final story in the collection is a letter, in which a “person” writes about their former life. Now it happens that their former life was spent as an ape. I could not help but think of the idea that this may have had some influence on the Planet of the Apes films. The emphasis, however, doesn’t really touch on the issues brought to the fore by the first 2 films of the series. Instead, the question posed is (in a very Philip K Dick-esque manner): what does it mean to be human?

It Is a short critique of how humans treat both themselves and others, especially others who are different from themselves. It is fairly thought-provoking, though I think some of the issues dealt with are not as significant in the 2010’s as they were in the 1910s, when it was first written.

Conclusion

The Metamorphosis and In The Penal Colony are far and away the best contributions to this collection of short stories. The others are OK, but there is nothing in them that really stands out as first rate writing, though as mentioned at the top, this may be because of the Americanised translation. But it is absolutely worth reading for the 2 stories mentioned alone.

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