Hernán D. Caro  Kafka and Latin American Literature

Gabriel Garcia Márquez. Barcelona 1969
Gabriel Garcia Márquez. Barcelona 1969 Colita; © Archivo Colita Fotografía

To this day, Franz Kafka continues to have considerable influence on the literature of Latin America. – An overview.

The importance of Franz Kafka for the literature of Latin America is immense and multifaceted. His influence already began during his lifetime and continues to the present day. “Kafka has influenced all of us,” the Argentinian writer Samanta Schweblin once said. And thus one repeatedly encounters Kafkaesque echoes in all kinds of different works by Latin American authors.

Any examination of the history of Kafka’s influence and impact in Latin America – and elsewhere – is bound to be incomplete. What follows thus constitutes an attempt in five stages to delve deeper into this ongoing history.

1. The liberation of imagination

In 1947, Gabriel García Márquez (1927–2014) was still a law student obsessed with lyric poetry. By chance, he got hold of a small book: Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. In The Fragrance of Guava – a volume of conversations published in 1982, the year in which the Colombian journalist and writer won the Nobel Prize in Literature – García Márquez tells of how he was lent the book by a roommate one evening. “I still remember the first sentence exactly: ‘As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect’.” He then thought to himself: “Damn, that’s how my grandmother used to talk”. And also: “So it’s acceptable to do that, then”. What García Márquez meant was that it was acceptable to tell a story in which supernatural occurrences feature – and to do so completely straight-facedly, as if such events were entirely normal, indeed mundane – in just the same way that his grandmother had talked in his childhood of the most curious things.

As García Márquez reports in his autobiography Living to Tell the Tale, he then realized that a writer “only has to write something,” for it to become true; “no other proof” would be needed. This is the principle on which the “magical realism” style is largely based that he later influenced in One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera.

Kafka, says García Márquez, “showed a new path” to his life. One day after his encounter with Metamorphosis he is supposed to have written his first short story, The Third Resignation, about a man who as a child had fallen ill with typhoid and been placed alive into a large coffin by his mother so that he could grow there. The story appeared in an important newspaper – and shortly afterwards the law student left university and devoted himself for the rest of his life to literature.

2. A cockroach dreams

Kafka describes the “insect” that Gregor Samsa has become as a “beetle” or “dung beetle”. Nonetheless, when people in the Spanish-speaking world talk about the fate of the protagonist in Metamorphosis, they frequently use the word cucaracha – meaning cockroach. Whatever the reason for this further transformation may be, it is certainly no act of unkindness towards Kafka. On the contrary.

Augusto Monterroso (1921–2003) provides a good example of this. This author from Guatemala, who described himself as a big Kafka reader, generally wrote short or extremely short ironic texts (some of them comprise just a single finely woven convoluted sentence) that are often about animals and read like fables.

“Kafka has accompanied me for a long time,” can be read in Monterroso‘s diary fragment La letra e. Accordingly, one repeatedly stumbles across small tributes to Kafka in his work. The best-known is entitled The Dreaming Cockroach (1969): “Once there was a Cockroach called Gregor Samsa who dreamt he was a Cockroach called Franz Kafka who dreamt he was a writer who wrote about a clerk called Gregor Samsa who dreamt he was a Cockroach”.

3. The universe as a labyrinth

Possibly no other Latin American writer has engaged more intensively with Kafka than Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986). The Argentinian poet and creator of wonderful and fantastical stories, who already discovered Kafka at the age of 17, wrote several essays during the course of his life about the Prague author, prefaces to his works and at least one poem about him. In addition, Borges translated a large number of Kafka’s stories into Spanish.

Borges admired Kafka’s ability to use precise language to describe images and scenes that many of us are familiar with from dreams, or rather nightmares. “Kafka’s destiny was to transform circumstances and agonies into fables. He depicted dark nightmares in a clear style”. This makes Kafka “the great classical writer of our tortured and strange century,” writes Borges. Incidentally, Borges’ texts are also known for their brilliant blend of conciseness, linguistic accuracy and narrative power.

Borges – a lover of labyrinths, mirrors and temporal and spatial paradoxes – was fascinated by a number of what he regarded as “typical” Kafka themes. These include the motif of the important message that will never reach its recipient, as happens in Kafka’s An Imperial Message; or a person’s futile attempt to overcome a seemingly small hindrance, as in the short prose text Before the Law; or the impossibility, despite making every effort to do so, of moving oneself forward to approach for example a building, as is the case in Kafka’s novel The Castle.

Above all, Borges believed that one theme was central to Kafka’s view of the world: a person’s desperate relationship with a higher order whose laws they are unable to understand – be this order a court, the emperor, God, or simply the infinite cosmos. And it is precisely in connection with this motif that Kafka’s direct influence is evident in some of the stories of the Argentinian author, such as The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim, The Library of Babel, The Lottery in Babylon or The Secret Miracle.

4. The impossible journey

There are texts – even those whose writers know nothing about one another – that communicate in some mysterious way with each other and reflect each other over the years. Three stories from Latin America are engaged in such mutual dialogue. And each of the three evokes in its turn some of the feelings that define what we mean today by “Kafkaesque”.

The first text appeared in 1952; entitled The Switchman, it is regarded as the best story by Juan José Arreolas (1918–2001), a classic Mexican author. It is about a stranger who arrives at an abandoned station. His train fails to materialize. Suddenly an old railway employee appears. The traveller asks anxiously whether the train will arrive soon, saying that he “must get to T by tomorrow!”. The old man advises him to take a room at the inn for a month – and begins to tell the increasingly aghast stranger about the country’s grotesque railway system. He explains that the trains have no fixed timetables; that in some places the tracks are “just two chalk lines on the ground”; in others, the stations are built for appearance only in the middle of the jungle, the people in them just dummies that are “a perfect image of reality”: “their faces bear the signs of an infinite weariness”. At the end, it remains uncertain whether the stranger will ever be able to travel.

The Argentinian writer Ana María Shua (born 1951) is known particularly for her “microrrelatos”, extremely short stories that combine elements of the dreamlike, the fantastical and the seemingly nonsensical. The text with the number 212 in her book La sueñera (1984) reads: “In the middle of the field they wait for the arrival of the train, dressed in their Sunday best they talk, share the content of their baskets without giving any thought to the lack of railway embankment, sleeper, track, with the joyful, silent certainty that no absurd train will come to interrupt the sweetness of waiting”.

The aforementioned Samanta Schweblin (born 1978), likewise from Argentina, wrote Hacia la alegre civilización (“Toward Happy Civilization”) in 2002, a short story that contains echoes of Monterroso’s and Shua’s worlds along with the unique sound of Kafka’s narrative voice. Schweblin tells of a man named Gruner – also a stranger at a provincial railway station – who is unable to buy a ticket because the employee at the ticket window claims not to have any change. This bizarre situation repeats itself day after day, and Gruner is forced to watch his train depart for the capital, the destination he longs to reach, without him. For lack of any alternative, Gruner moves into the home of the railway employee and his wife, where he gets to know other men who have also ended up stranded at this place in the middle of nowhere. Eventually, Gruner is able to board the train – but what will he find when he reaches his destination?

5. The inexhaustible source

One hundred years after Kafka’s death, the fascination his writings provoke appears endless. Even younger Latin American authors for example are still drawing inspiration from Kafka’s menacing scenarios or highly precise style. Here are just two examples:

Pergentino José (born 1981) is a Mexican author of Zapotec origin who writes in both Spanish and the indigenous Loxicha language from Oaxaca. The stories in his book Hormigas rojas (“Red Ants”, 2012) are set in the world of the Zapotec and combine old legends with the present day and realism with spooky events. “I am interested in the Kafkaesque and those closed spaces where you search for your inner language,” the author has said. And indeed, Kafka’s influence is impossible to overlook in José’s short texts. In one of them, a man attempts to cross a forest but is prevented from doing so by an unknown force; in another somebody is given the ominous task of protecting a people that is not his own; while another story is about a young man who is waiting one night for the woman he loves but suddenly has a clear premonition that his story will end violently.

Mexico is also where the poet and writer Sandra Rosas (born 1977) comes from, whose book El mar que no vio mamá (“The Ocean that Mama Didn’t See”) was published in 2023. Rosas also describes Kafka as an important source of inspiration for her texts, which often blend reflections on the relationship between mother and daughter, references to misogynistic violence and mysterious dream scenarios. One of Rosas’ texts reads: “The man on the beach shows me various earrings, and a few of them are live birds. A piece of metal is tied to their backs, ballast that makes it impossible for them to fly. They are still suitable for use as jewellery, however. The man says that the metal does not hurt them. At the same time, he proudly admits that it prevents the birds from escaping. I place the bird earrings in my hand and know that what he claims to be a good idea has in reality another name. I tell him this, but his body is already rising up into the air while my words contract to form a whistle.”

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