Kafka’s ‘Give it up’: postmodern despair foreseen
Ages ago, I signed up to a cunning deal that Penguin books had, namely that if you agreed to review a book on their website, they’d agree to send it free. So I did it for a laugh, not knowing what I’d end up with. A few days later, our faithful Correspondence Delivery Operative posted Franz Kafka’s The Great Wall of China through the letterbox. Well, that wouldn’t exactly have been my first choice, that’s for sure!
But the saving grace was discovering that this edition is actually an anthology of short stories and so eminently dip-in-able. But you don’t read Kafka for the fun or light entertainment. You read him because he is compulsively disturbing, because he exposes the absurdities and horrors of the modern world (despite dying in 1924), and because his writing is extraordinary.
Some of the stories are only a few lines long. Here is one that knocked me sideways: is it not a perfect depiction of our postmodern despair at ever discovering the truth? Brilliant.
It was very early in the morning, the streets clean and deserted, I was on my way to the station. As I compared my watch with the clock on a tower I saw that it was much later than I had thought, I had to make great haste; in my alarm at this discovery I became unsure of the way, I was still something of a stranger in this town; luckily, there was a policeman at hand, I ran up to him and breathlessly asked him the way.
He smiled and said: “Do you expect to discover the way from me?”
“Yes,” I said, “since I cannot find it myself.”
“Give it up, give it up,” said he, and turned away with a great flourish, like a man who wants to be alone with his laughter.
With these few, spare, and cold phrases, Kafka tells the story of an entire cosmology. It’s a chilling foreshadowing of what L’Abri boss Wim Rietkerk has called ‘nihilism with a smile’:
- We’re lost in an unfamiliar town and we’re looking for the way out (eg by train);
- So what do we do? We turn to people in uniform because we understandably assume that they have authority and hopefully knowledge and insight.
- The shock comes when we discover that they are no more able to give us directions than we are able to guess which route to take.
- So we are left floundering… but stuck.