Tomáš Moravec Whom does Franz Kafka belong to?

Franz Kafka about 34 years old. July 1917
Franz Kafka about 34 years old. July 1917 | © Archiv Klaus Wagenbach

The question of whom Franz Kafka belongs to occupies many minds more persistently than is perhaps necessary.

A few years ago, Franz Kafka had suddenly appeared in a crooked alley in Prague’s Old Town. He was an estimated three metres tall, made of strong cardboard, had a hand-drawn face scowling at passers-by and held a painted sign in English, German and Russian claiming that the best and most traditional souvenirs from the Czech capital could be bought in the shop next door. You’ve guessed it: this Kafka was an advertising placard.

The cardboard Kafka had stood in that crooked alley for several years until a vigilant citizen (a “nagger” locals would say) alerted the authorities to this ugly advertisement, unworthy of a UNESCO-protected city centre, and inquired about who on Earth had given the permission for Kafka to be, almost a hundred years after his death, placed tightly near the façade of a Baroque house to help some shopkeepers earn money.

Prague’s authorities, which it must be said have not changed much since Kafka’s time, began to act. They discovered that no permission to install the Kafka advertising placard had ever been issued and that the three-metre high Franz had therefore for years been illegally loitering at the wall. So they sent a formal order to the owner of the adjacent shop with the best and most typical Prague souvenirs, urging him to shove his Kafka up his nose or elsewhere, but in any case to be quick about it.

Franz’s long trial

As nothing had happened for a long time, two policemen knocked on the door of the shop in the crooked alley to ask nicely but firmly why the cardboard monster (they meant Franz) was still haunting the street. “That’s a tough one,” the shop owner said scratching his head: “I can’t remove the placard, because it’s not mine.” The officers wondered, too, and argued that if an advertisement stands in front of someone’s shop, it can be assumed that it also belongs to that shop. The owner of the souvenir shop said that while this might be assumed, it can’t be proved, and as far as he was concerned, the officers could take the three-metre high placard away at once; he had nothing to do with it and did not want it.

However, a constable in the hundred-spired city of Prague cannot simply arrest Franz Kafka, even if he is just made of cardboard: it is first necessary to find out who the Kafka actually belongs to. And so the officers just waved their hands and went back to the relevant authorities, who began to investigate. Their investigation took a long time, and in the end, they didn’t find much. The souvenir dealer kept denying that the Kafka placard belonged to him, explaining the fact that he had been seen occasionally brushing street dust and pigeon droppings off its shoulders by pure altruism.

Eventually, the relevant authorities, incidentally based on the nearby Franz Kafka Square, ran out of patience, stopped playing nice and actually removed the placard one day. Even then, however, it was not possible to just throw the three-meter Kafka into a shredder and recycle him. After all, just because the owner has not been found does not mean that an owner does not exist. And so Kafka was placed in a dark Prague warehouse, probably not quite unlike the attic of the Old Synagogue, where the Golem of Prague, an artificial man, a servant ghost, is said to have rested for centuries. Perhaps, when someone finds the cardboard Kafka in one hundred years, he will become the subject of legends just like the Golem. For now, the only story being told around Prague is the cheerful tale of the souvenir shop owner who had for years used the cardboard placard to advertise his goods for free and never faced any penalty.

So why am I telling you all this? Because unlike Kafka, the advertising placard, whom nobody claimed to own, all sort of people claim to own the real Kafka. And by “all sorts of people” I don't just mean readers of his works, respectable citizens of Prague and souvenir dealers. As a famous German author of Jewish origin from the Czech capital, Kafka has practically been made to be appropriated by many different interest groups.

A famous Austrian

The question of whom Franz Kafka belongs to occupies many minds more persistently than is perhaps necessary. Some time ago, for example, the news of an exhibition, which featured dozens of famous “Austrians”, including Franz Kafka, on large-format panels, raised many eyebrows in Prague’s cultural circles. After some pertinent (again: in Prague, people would say “nagging”) questions were asked, the organizers explained that by “Austrian” they meant an Austrian personality of Czech origin and that “Austrian” was to be understood in the sense of “Austro-Hungarian”. They added that this was because, when Franz Kafka was born on 3 July 1883, Prague and the whole of Bohemia were part of Austria-Hungary, which was a fact no one could dispute. The fact that at the time of Kafka’s death no one cared about old Austria anymore and that Kafka had been a Czechoslovak citizen over the last six years of his life was said to be irrelevant. After all, the organizers added, Kafka died in Kierling, Lower Austria, so he could not be denied the attribute “Austrian”, try as hard as you can.

German language writer

Similarly, some eyebrows were raised recently at our Goethe-Institut. It was when a friendly Czech teacher visited us to find out what the Prague branch of this German cultural and language centre does, what it is working on and what it has to offer. Not only did the teacher learn about language courses, film performances at the Goethe Cinema and a number of exhibitions, scholarships and author readings, but he was also informed about the preparation of a rich programme focusing on one of the most famous bearers of the name Franz to mark the 100th anniversary of Kafka’s death. “What do you have in common with Kafka?” the teacher wondered, and there was a slight irritation in his voice: “Was he a German?”

Well, Franz Kafka was not a German in today’s sense of the word, but the question still took us somewhat by surprise. While we at the Goethe-Institut certainly do not wish to appropriate Kafka and would never have thought that we owned him in one way or another, we also take it for granted that Prague’s most famous German language writer is not only a working subject for us, but also a subject dear to our hearts. After all, we are also “Praguers” and German is as central to our institute as it was to Franz Kafka.

A torn Zionist from Bohemia

And, quite logically, the Czechs also claim a stake in Franz Kafka. Although they would not usually say that Kafka was a “Tscheche”, or ethnic Czech, but a “Böhm”, a person from Bohemia, many of them believe the cliché that Kafka’s works are “based on the author’s tornness between his German, Jewish and Bohemian identity” and are usually proud of the native of their Prague and claim him as their own. Not infrequently, they also do not forget to point out that all the absurdities and reversals with the authorities, depicted for example in The Trial, describe typically Czech red tape, which can still be commonly encountered in Prague today (see the beginning of this text). After all, Franz’s surname is also Czech: Kafka, as it is commonly interpreted, is the phonetic spelling of “kavka” the Czech word for the bird species jackdaw. In German it would be “Dohle”.

Of course, there is a somewhat more direct connection between Kafka and the Jewish community, and not only the one in Prague. Although Franz Kafka was not one of the most ardent synagogue-goers, he did identify as a Jew and for several years even actively toyed with Zionist ideas and had the desire to emigrate to Palestine (although probably for reasons related to his health rather than religion). It cannot be denied that the Prague Jewish community and Franz Kafka belong together. But does (or did) Kafka belong to it? It would probably be presumptuous to pretend to know the answer, and it seems that Franz Kafka himself did not have one, and over his entire life he was trying to find out and struggling with who he was and to whom he belonged. As he wrote in his diary on 8 January 1914: “What have I in common with Jews? I have hardly anything in common with myself and should stand very quietly in a corner, content that I can breathe.”

So to whom does Franz Kafka belong? And to whom does his legacy belong? The fact that he did not even want his work to belong to anyone else is not a matter of speculation. This wish, written in a fever on 29 November 1922 and meant for his friend Max Brod, was more than clear: of all his writings, only The Judgment, The Stoker, The Metamorphosis, In the Penal Colony, A Country Doctor and the short story A Hunger Artist were to be preserved. Everything else, with no exceptions, was to be burned after his death.

Max Brod, as we know, did not follow Kafka’s will. And the Germans, Czechs, Austrians, Jews, the owner of the tourist shop in the crooked Prague alley and the rest of the world do neither. They all still print, sell and (fortunately also) read not only Kafka’s writings, but also writings about Kafka. Even a hundred years after his death, events surrounding the famous Prague writer still resemble a race in which literary scholars scramble to scrutinize even the smallest details of Kafka’s life. But does this mean that Kafka belongs to everyone? To some extent, perhaps – such is the life of celebrities, even if they never aspired to become one. Nevertheless, I would venture to conclude by saying that if Kafka should belong to anyone at all, it is primarily to himself. Even if he should not want to.