Chyak, chyak. The raven's caw startled me as I leaned over an old photograph of a big, burly, overbearing man with a mustache in a prosperous merchant's suit. No, not a raven. A jackdaw, a smaller member of the corvid family. There is was, on Hermann Kafka's letterhead, and on the front of his fancy goods store. The jackdaw was the logo of the man who scared and obsessed his son, known to readers today as Franz, but on his gravestone in the New Jewish Cemetery in Prague as Amschel. [*]
The Kafka Museum, on the bank of the Vltava river in Mala Strana, is an extraordinary and deeply disturbing experience, starting with the family photos under the shadow of the jackdaws. Soon you are in front of brilliantly doctored black and white film clips of the Old Town of Kafka's childhood, when he clung to the walls as the stern family cook escorted him from the family flat in the Minuta building (beside the Old Town Hall) to the German school in the Meat Market. The famously beautiful buildings sway and menace, as if about to fall or devour. Then the saints and angels of the Charles Bridge appear, shapeshifting into demons of wind and fire with streaming hair and snaking beards.
You go down steep wooden stairs, lit by a hellish red light, where there is a sinister sound of gnawing. You are entering the first of a series of topographies of Kafka's imagination, created as installation art. This one is inspired by his story "The Burrow", the ultimate nightmare of any claustrophobic.
You walk on, into an endless office, walled with dark metal file cabinets that fill corridor after corridor, evoking Kafka's loathing of the conditions of his Brotberuft ("bread-job") working in the "dens of bureaucracy" in the closing years of the Austro-Hungarian empire.
You enter a passage in which strange scenes unfold on multiple screens around you. You step forward and there you are, projected into the mysterious drama as a figure in silhouette. The castle ahead of you is just a sketch that vanishes. Then it appears as the burred profile of the Prague castle. Then you come to barriers spiked with barbed wire. Then a darker, more solid castle rises above you, rearing dark towers and battlements. Will you be allowed in? If admitted, will you ever get out?
Now you are in the fantastic world of Kafka's unfinished novel The Castle. There is no relief, no resolution here for any of the Angst and alienation we find in his works - rather, a sudden and jaw-dropping fall into his imaginal world and the elements of his life that fed his imagination and were ultimately devoured by it.
You leave the world of The Castle and look at photos of the women in Kafka's life, none of whom he married. You wince at the model of the torture machine in his story "The Penal Colony", and squirm at the account of what happened when he read this gruesome piece to an audience in Munich in the only reading he ever gave outside his own country; three women fainted and the critics went for his blood.
You feel how his nightmares of suffocation and of being throttled came home to roost in his body as he slowly starved to death, unable to eat, to drink or to speak after his tuberculosis swelled his larynx. They had not yet discovered how to keep patients alive on an IV feed. And you wonder about the extent to which Kafka may be a negative role model - and an important one - in understanding how the imagination rules the body. On the one hand, his fiction mirrored and anticipated his physical complaints, as well as the oppression he encountered within his family, his work and his society. On the other hand, by investing so much creative power in images of confinement, asphyxiation and impotence, he may, tragically, have brought his body into a corresponding pattern of behavior. He even wrote a story titled "The Hunger Artist", about a performer who deliberately starves himself until he is close to death.
We need to be alert to how we use our imaginations, which can heal or destroy our bodies and take us to a place of freedom or suffocating confinement. I have put a recent biography of Kafka, and his collected stories on my bedside table, to pursue this thread, and others. Haunted by his life and his visions, I walked the night streets of the Old Town many hours after my visit to the museum and came to the extraordinary statue of Kafa that stands next to the Spanish Synagogue. Almost unpublished in his lifetime, little known in his native country until after the fall of communism, Kafka rides in posthumous fame on a remarkable mount. Is that a golem that is carrying him?
[*] In Czech, the jackdaw is kavka. Like other Jewish families compelled to adopt Gentile names under the laws of the Austro-Hungarian empire, the Kafkas took the name of a bird or animal.
Photos by R.M.