I’ve met an increasing amount of nomads and local dwellers alike who opt exclusively for paper books: characters of all ages and stereotypes. Curiously, I’ve also held the more profound book chats with this profile. It somehow makes sense, especially for the avid readers of the classics, to prefer paper.
Or do I vainly connect the dots?
Acquiring paper books is easy even on the go. See if a local library allows you to check out as a tourist, perhaps by means of a deposit. I followed this course with a series of readings at Puerto Vallarta, the last of which I didn’t quiet finish by my day of departure, impelled to read the few remaining chapters on the computer.
The library also happened to be closed for a holiday that very day. I thus left the book with some college kid at a bus station offering to later return it. So much for the entire deposit.
Alternatively, consider used book stores. Two months of reading often cost the equivalent of a meal. Plenty of books also collect dust around hostels and guesthouses, which you can often borrow, exchange or gracefully steal, should you prefer a bit of the asocial.
At one of these, a college student mastering in letters gradually proceeded through an ultra thick, gorgeously paper bound edition of Don Quixote illustrated by Gustave Dore. How often do I encounter such a rare sight?
On a shelf at my present guesthouse I’d found a thick anthology of a handful of Franz Kafka’s works in a Spanish translation. Incidentally, it contained In the Penal Colony (En la colonia penitenciaria), which I’ve been meaning to read, along with a series of other short stories.
Exposed now to Kafka through five different languages, the experience only reaffirmed my previous findings: the romance languages don’t do justice to the author. Though never read the original German, I have a keen sense for contemporary and watered down language.
It didn’t evoke that nauseating sentiment that I found more evident in the Slavic translations, or even in English (though to a lesser extent). I expect a Kafka composition to produce a very acquired aftertaste.
Yet in spite of being limited to a mere approximation of Kafka’s voice, the Bohemian author still holds a firm position among my favourites of all time.
The Penal Colony
I’ll say a few words about the Penal Colony.
I first saw mention of the short story in Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, mentioned by a character as one of his favourites along with The Trial and Castle. I loved both of those novels, more so for having read them in Slavic language translations (Russian and Polish).
Penal Colony mainly concerns four characters: the explorer, the official, the soldier, and the condemned, referred to by these precise, impersonal titles. The torture machine (described in profuse detail), however, I feel deserves a place among the main cast.
Similarly to the Trial/Castle (and Metamorphosis), though not necessarily to the slew of other of Kafka’s shorter works, Penal Colony exhibits the following traits:
Haunting/harrowing proceedings related through numbing, detached, impersonal forms of narration: the bureaucratic machine in full force.
Abundant in the mundane, which, packaged with the above, produces a chilling byproduct. I find such instances integral to the longer Kafka writings. For instance, the soldier and the condemned eating rice or playing with the handkerchiefs, made for my favourite passages.
Not much pathos (if any); or rather, not where you’d traditionally expect it.
Barren, repressed environments: a remote, entirely non-exotic port; a crude cafeteria. Or across the body of work in general: the base dwellings, the soot, the smoke/fog, the constricting feel, the humbleness.
Visceral behaviors and reactions.
Limited/obscure third-person narration.
Commences in medias res - right in the middle of the action. Little to no background, unclear motives.
The ending hardly more emphatic than the beginning or anything throughout.
The entire narrative feels a perpetual meditation on a German Expressionism painting.
Other short stories
A few micro short stories by Kafka also deserve mention. These actually form part of the collection titled La Muralla China/The Great Wall of China:
- The City Coat of Arms: an intriguing parable concerning the Tower of Babel.
- On Parables (in Spanish, oddly titled De las alegorias).
- A Common Confusion: two persons bound to hold a meeting.
- The Hunter Graechus
- The Crossbreed: about a half kitten, half lamb
- Poseidon: busy with paperwork
- Prometheus: the various renditions of the Prometheus myth
- Community (not sure if this be the accurate English translation): about five friends. Quintessential Kafka.
- The Silence of the Sirens: concerning Ulysses.
- The Truth about Sancho Panza: concerning Don Quixote.
Should you, like myself, prefer philosophical thought through fiction over works of philosophers, you might find Kafka all the more compelling.
Questions, comments? Connect.