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Monday, April 06, 2009

Reader's Diary #477- Franz Kafka: The Great Wall of China

Up till now my only experience with Kafka was the fascinating, albeit dark and somewhat confusing, story, "In The Penal Colony." But earlier this week Kafka's "The Great Wall of China" was recommended and so I thought it was high time I revisited him. I was warned it would not be cheery.

Unlike "In The Penal Colony," "The Great Wall of China" is paced slower. Though people have described it as a short story, I think it's more accurately described as a fictional essay. There is no narrative plot, it is simply the reflections and questions of a man who had helped construct a very small part of it.

Like "In The Penal Colony," "The Great Wall of China" just begs a metaphorical interpretation. Kafka seems to touch briefly upon just the right ideas within the literal context to make a brain slip and grasp for any figurative hold it can reach. I've suspected with some authors (and poets and songwriters) that they present controversial or emotion laden words with ambiguity as a facade of intelligence. Though Kafka uses the old Biblical reference trick (in this case, it's the Tower of Babel), I think he's the real deal.

But once again, I'm at a loss as to what it all means. I've searched online a bit to see what others have made of it and I only managed to find a few that suggested it was meant as an anti-authority message. While Kafka's narrator does question the motives and direction of the emperor, I think it's meant to go beyond that.

The wall is described as being built over a very long time and in sections that are meant to extend and meet up. Masons and architects in the South, for example, may never see what is being build far to the North, what will be built in later years, and almost no one will see the final result in its entirety. (With such concepts as time and space, is it any wonder Kafka sends my brain into overdrive?) The narrator describes how workers must be kept motivated in such an endeavour and be convinced of its usefulness. His skepticism instilled a morbid little thought that perhaps the wall is meant to represent life.

I was warned.

(Did you write a Short Story Monday post? If so, please leave your link below!)

11 comments:

JoAnn said...

I may be the only person around that has never read Kafka. He's always seemed intimidating somehow...

gautami tripathy said...

I read Kafka some 15 years back. I think I ought re-read him.

John Mutford said...

JoAnn: Keep in mind this is only my second, but based on those, he is and he isn't intimidating. I mean, on the surface level his stories are easy to follow and can be enjoyed just at that. However, there is a very obvious lure to suspect a metaphor or two at play and that's where things get dicey.

Gautami: I still need to read Metamorphosis, but I never seem to fit novellas into my schedule.

Laza said...

I'm supposed to read The Great Wall of China for my class this semester. I'm a little nervous now. :)

Teddy Rose said...

I have never read Kafka before either. I will have to give him a try.

I finally did a short Story Monday post and used Mr. Linky.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

Oh yay! I could handle a little Kafka right about now. It is Monday, after all.

Intergalactic Bookworm said...

I did not know that my link did not take. It id up there now For the Death Of Ivan Ilych. We are STILL having internet connection problems. Judy(IB)

Anonymous said...

You can skip to the heart of the Trial with the excerpt about the gatekeeper... It's a good chaser to the great Wall...
-Myshkin.

http://records.viu.ca/~Johnstoi/Kafka/beforethelaw.htm

Anonymous said...

Re: The Great Wall of China
...not in an effort to understand the author's intentions, but as a game to play with his parable try googling Leo Strauss... or Leo Strauss and Nihilism...
There seems to be only one article I could find quickly that contains k's Great Wall and Strauss - and it's not intelligible to me 'cause I'm not schooled in philo and so it's hard to get very far - but some of the articles on Strauss that aren't too glib or too deeply academic are kinda interesting to read after a re-read of k's GWoC.
I think the most interesting thing about the GWoC is the narrator's vantage, as you alluded to. If Kafka wanted merely to impugn imperialism he coulda written omnisciently. The most interesting thing about k is that his characters are in the anxious position of being halfway up - they can see there's a ledge waaaay above and a bottom waaaay down but can't make out either too clearly. Never enough information for a conclusion.
-Myshkin.

amol said...

I agree with John that most of Kafka's stories are easy to read on the surface level, but it gets tough when you start going deeper into his words. It is like a maze and your mind just goes off in random directions. I have read around 4-5 Kafka stories, but still sometimes am just not able to fathom what he wants to say. Like in the Great Wall, the gist is pretty much clear, but some of the sentences or phrases here and there just left me bewildered, just could not get the hang of those. Among the ones I have read, I found 'Before the Law' and 'The hunger artist' really amazing and beautiful pieces.
PS: If somebody has read 'The imperial message' then please explain to me what Kafka wants to say through that. (Though it was beautiful to read, it was too complex for me to understand)

ds said...

Hi! I'm struggling to get meaning out of The Great Wall of China too. I just re-read it this week. I read it a long time ago when I was a teenager - it followed Metemorphosis in the collection I had. Of course, I found it quite dull compared to that. Since then I've read most of Kafka's stories, and really enjoy his super-efficeint prose and dare I say, quirky humour. As commenter "amol" said, there are some bewildering paragraphs or sentences - they seem to resist untangling too, like knotted string or something. The only thing I can say about the author is that he seems to have been highly intelligent - I mean really extra-intelligent, and expressed his feeling through his writing and thinking.