Sunday, 22 March 2009

The Next Village

There is a (very) short story by Franz Kafka, with the title The Next Village. When I first read it, aged 17, and studying for German A Level, I think I thought it was simply amusingly weird. Now, aged 55, and getting a first good long look at old age (still in the distance, but closer and a damn sight more real than A Levels), my view of it has changed several times.

Here is the whole thing, in my translation:

Grandad always used to say: "Life is amazingly short. Looking back, even now, everything is all so closely crowded up that I can scarcely imagine, say, how a young person makes up their mind to visit the next village without the fear that -- quite apart from any mishaps -- even the length of a normally, happily unfolding life will be nowhere near enough time for such a trip."

Now, I think it's easy to take this story at face value. How very true, you might think: the older I get the quicker the time seems to go! How clear my childhood seems, but where, for the love of Dora Diamant, are my car keys? Short, sharp, and to the point -- good old Kafka! You could get the thing made up into a little poster to hang over your desk. "You don't have to be Kafka to work here, but it helps!"

However, for what it's worth, I always think it's good to remember that Kafka had a sense of humour. And, as that classic double act Deleuze and Guattari point out, the problem with most readers and critics is that they retreat from the experience of the unknown to the knowable, from the uncomfortable to the comfort zone: Kafka's castle must be "god", transformation into a beetle must be about oedipal conflict, etc. As Freud is alleged to have said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Or, as G. Marx did say, "Mind if I don't smoke?"

I refer you to my earlier post Impossible Things. Is it not amusing that an old man, at the end of his "normally, happily unfolding life," comes to the realisation that a trip to the next village (a journey he has presumably made many times) is actually impossible? That life, as lived, has an exponential quality which makes the banal, the eminently possible, as daunting as a trip to Mars? Perhaps it's a joke you can only get if you have ever slumped in a room (depressed, drunk, wasted, or simply lazy) and longed to be in that impossibly distant corner shop.


Mauro Thon Giudici said...

If you do some google search you will find a lot of new studies on nostalgia shedding some light on what happens at our "young" age.

I read the Kafka piece in my youth too. A few days ago, mostly supporting my daughter in her study (or Abysmal Ignorance Recovery: AIR) I came across a similar one from "Dino Buzzati" "I sette messageri". At the moment it reminded something but did non get it. Your reminder made me reconnect the two tales. Thanks.

Do not worry you still have a lot of time left :-D, that's what I repeat myself :-(. An other supporting thought is that Leonardo at 50 still had to paint his best known works.

But against any liniment do not forget the Rambo III consideration upon the training in ignoring pain: "Did it work" .... "not exactly".

Mike C. said...


Especially for you, I give you this link:

Rather strange, but rather touching...

Mauro Thon Giudici said...

Thanks. Interesting. I have to confess that I have never liked Mastroianni. Too much Italian for my taste (you know we've never been a real unitarian state). But in this case I admit that he has such an ability in having a casual approach to the question. And yes it is touching. I hope that this will last almost for a month in terms of nostalgia and sentimentalism :-D

Mike C. said...

Yes, I think it's probably comparable to finding a video of Dirk Bogarde doing a piece on James Joyce's "The Dead" or something ... Weird.