I think I finally understand Kafka. I first encountered him, like so many others, in school, something that does not really make any sense when you stop to think about it. Show me a 14 year old who can appreciate the trials of Josef K in The Trial and I show you a 14 year old who has worse problems than getting their literary canon in order. It is old, it is stuffy, and teenagers, as a rule, cannot identify with Josef K. They do not get how much they should be able to, with their pubertary experiences and the fact that they cannot really talk to any figure of authority to help them with their predicaments. They usually are way too pragmatic and dismissive about it. “That’s, like, sooo stupid. Why doesn’t he just, like, go see the judge or something.” They do not get why K cannot just, like, go to a judge or something. The social behaviours expected of a person and how difficult, if not downright impossible it is for people to break them. Who is to say whether it is the less rigid social norms and structures, the fact that culture nowadays usually focuses more on the individual that the group, Kafka’s story dealing with a big, faceless, inhuman bureaucracy instead of everyday life, or simply that teenagers are incredibly self-absorbed and always have been.
I mean, why should they not be; ever changing hormone levels and brain chemistry resulting in a nightmarish existence where the once blindly trusted authority figures suddenly cannot help or even understand them anymore. It is downright Kafkaesque…
Which brings me to the postal service. Cynics would say those and Kafka naturally go exceptionally well together; but overall I have made different observations. Until I had to pick up a parcel the other day, that is. I had a massive advantage over Kafka’s protagonists. I knew where to go and why. But the notification of where to pick up a parcel the post did not want to entrust to any of my neighbours did nothing to prepare me for the location itself.
I entered a battered, old office complex. The drab, greyish fitted carpet on the floor looked like regiments of postal workers must have trodden on it ever since the days before the fall of communism. Which was a strange juxtaposition with the fact that not a soul was in sight. Stranger still was the stench. Never quite stingingly, but ever present and oscillating in strength, the deserted hallways reeked of a mixture of urine of several species, regular old mildew and a component I could not quite place, intriguing in its repulsiveness. As the smelly corridors stretched before me, lockers and deposit boxes lined the wall, putting me at a loss of where to go. I wanted to pick up a parcel, what good would a lock-box do me? Maybe I could ask someone where to… Oooh! Right. Everything is empty. Except for the big, worn-out, green plush elephant who sits on the floor in a corner, behind what undoubtedly used to be a service desk back in a year starting with 1. The signage did not much to clear up my confused state of mind, either. It only went on and on about one specific lock-box and where to find it. The flickering of the old neon tubes, combined with their incessant clicking and humming, doing doing the rest to give me both a headache and a general queasiness. My aching head spinning and my spirits falling to new lows, all hope escaped me and I resigned myself to my fate of never finding both my parcel and a way out of the hallway maze.
And there, on this stinking fitted carpet in the stinking, old hallways of a run-down post service building, with nary another person in sight, no idea where I have to go and how to get what I want, in my own way I finally, truly, grokked Kafka.