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A Return to Kafka

On the publication anniversary of ‘The Trial,’ a foray into the labyrinth of Russian bureaucracy shows that the author was dead-on

by
Maxim D. Shrayer
April 26, 2021
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

In the fall of 1989, with two American years tucked under my Soviet leather belt, I was getting a master’s degree in comparative literature and trying to figure out how to become an academic without having to strangle my literary ambitions. Paths of Russian poetry brought me to Konstantin Konstantinovich Kuzminsky (Russian moniker “KKK”), a poet, anthologist, and performance artist who was born in Leningrad in 1940, emigrated in 1975, first lived in Texas and subsequently in Brooklyn, and finally died in the hamlet of Lordville, New York, in 2015. He was a living legend made up of poetic hyperbole and prosaic contradiction. At the time I got to know him, Kuzminsky held court not far from Brighton Beach, in the basement of an inelegant apartment building, which he, his wife Emma (Russian moniker “Mysh” [Mouse]) and several greyhounds were renting along with a small first-floor apartment. Kuzminsky’s Podval (Basement) was one of the centers of New York’s émigré cultural life, a combination of a salon, gallery, and reading venue. Bearded and long-haired, witty, and ardently committed to living the life of a bohemian, Kuzminsky spent his days and nights lying on a bed in various robes, collecting and disseminating Russian poetry, and receiving visitors in his underground abode, its walls decorated with avant-garde art, anarchist flags, and antique weapons. His great contribution is the multivolume Blue Lagoon Anthology of Modern Russian Poetry, which he spearheaded, co-edited, and never completed.

Kuzminsky was generous, vulnerable, and creatively bigoted. Although not a Jew himself, he was surrounded by mostly men and women who had come to America on the wings of the great Jewish emigration. Jewish questions somehow bothered and irked him, perhaps in spite of his own better judgment. “I walk on the low verge of the forbidden,” he once told me, recalling a comment he made in one of his publications. This had to do with blood libel and referred to two immigrant brothers, his former landlords, as Jews who “drink blood … had drunk two buckets of my own blood.” But Kuzminsky also admired and promoted Jewish poets, including those who made aliyah and were living in Israel. In the days of my literary youth, I enjoyed his kindness and even borrowed a few tricks from his old fedora.

It was Kuzminsky who infected me with an anti-Kafkian germ, and this germ stayed in my system for three decades.

“What sort of books do you read in your graduate courses?” Kuzminsky asked me in December 1989.

I was taking a seminar on the novel, and The Trial was on the syllabus.

“Do you like Kafka?” Kuzminsky asked me, disappointment in his voice.

“Less than Joyce or Proust,” I gave a safe answer.

A tirade followed, in which Kuzminsky explained that he divided writers into “Kafkians” and “Rabelaisians.” Kafkians, he said, were cerebral, sickly, darkly shaded, depressing, sparsely worded. Rabelaisians were exuberant, carnal, sunny, verbally inventive.

“Many Jews are Kafkians,” he said.

“What about Babel? Chagall?” I objected.

“Those are exceptions,” Kuzminsky stated. And then he asked in exasperation: “Why do American intellectuals love the term ‘Kafkaesque’ so much? Everything is Kafkaesque to them. How would they know? At least we have our Soviet past …”

For years I appreciated Kafka. I taught him on occasion, and I even published a bit about Nabokov’s begrudgingly acknowledged debt to Kafka. But Kafka wasn’t a writer I loved or read for pleasure. And the ex-Soviet in me never got into the habit of throwing the term “Kafkaesque” left and right—like the red badge of confusion. And then, in the winter of 2021, a pandemic-driven attempt to wrest an honorarium from a publisher made me rethink my relationship with the great Jewish modernist from Prague.

For many years, I had been going to Russia once, sometimes twice a year—usually in the summer and late fall. And I would devote one day to visiting my publishers in order to collect literary earnings. Please don’t get me wrong, these royalties and honoraria weren’t substantial, especially when converted from rubles to dollars. But they were sufficient to buy presents for my wife, children, and parents. More recently, when I visited Moscow, I would invite my daughters along on royalty-collecting trips around the city. And I would tell them of the good-bad old Soviet days, when my father used to take me with him to editorial offices and treat me to something special after receiving honoraria.

With the onset of COVID-19, I stopped traveling, and I haven’t been to Russia in over one a half years. Royalties for three of my Russian books were accumulating, however, and I resolved to collect them without leaving Boston. Two publishers readily agreed to wire me the funds, but the third one refused. That publisher’s business office wrote to me saying that, other than collecting the royalties in person, I had the option to create something called a “Yandex purse,” to which they would periodically send my earnings. In the original Russian, yandeks koshelek sounds a bit oxymoronic, as though a Victorian lady were to rise from the grave and start an advertising agency.

I shared the news with my very wise mother.

“That bureaucratic country is beyond change,” she said. “Why do you need it?”

“These are my earnings,” I responded.

“Don’t get involved,” my mother cautioned me. “There’s a reason we left Russia for good.”

As usual, I didn’t take my mother’s advice. “Yes,” I said, “a major pain in the butt. I’ve got to figure it out.”

Having signed up for a “Yandex purse,” I sent the information to my publisher’s business office. The next day they replied: “You have signed up for an ‘anonymous purse.’ What we need from you is an ‘identified purse.’ A scent of death wafted in from my desktop screen. I read the rules on the Yandex site. In order to register for an “identified purse,” one would either need to appear in person at one of their offices in Russia, or send by certified mail an application, a copy of the passport, and a translation of the entire paperwork. At this point, I already knew this was going to be complicated, and I turned to their online support for assistance.

The following day I received this response via email (here and hereafter are my literal translations from the Russian):

Hello!
For sending copies of documents by mail, you can notarize your signature, and since we understand that your documents will not be in the Russian language, you need to put an apostille on the documents.
Detailed instructions are found here: https://yoomoney.ru/page?id=536164
When we receive and process your data, a notification will appear in your purse. You will need to check the information, and, if everything is correct, your purse will immediately become identified.
With respect,
Natalia
User support service

I needed further clarification. Again, I emailed Yandex user support: “Please tell me, does the application form require an apostille? And is a translation of the passport needed?”

An hour later I received a response, in which the possessives refused to get along:

Hello.

Apostille is placed on the notary’s passport’s attestation.
You must have a copy of your passport notarized, then have an apostille placed on the notary’s attestation, then take it to a translation service and have them translate the passport, attestation, and apostille. Thereafter the translator’s signature must also be notarized.
With respect,
Artyom
User support service

I felt the beginning of an existential crisis, hence this next email that I dispatched to Yandex user support: “Ladies and gentlemen, I do not understand. What in the passport requires translation? In my US passport I have a Russian visa in Russian. Perhaps that would suffice? Or I could translate it myself. I am a professor of Russian literature. And I could obtain a university seal. Thank you.”

The next response arrived literally in minutes. It was detailed, unrelenting, and resembled a Minotaur’s labyrinth:

Hello.
For all foreign citizens, if in any type of document the data is not given in parallel Russian, an official translation of this document is required. This same translation must be notarized. If the attestation is also in a foreign language, then a translation is also required.
The translation must be carried out by an official translation bureau. Your own translation of your own documents (arbitrary translation) or the notary’s translation of his own attestation is not permitted.
With respect,
Vasilisa,
User support service

I printed out the “identified purse” application and made a copy of my passport. Then I Googled a Russian translation agency and found one located in Boston. I called; a woman with an accent answered. I switched to Russian. The woman spoke in a confident voice with a southern Russian accent. She explained that her office used to be in Boston but has since moved to Minnesota.

“Scan and text me the papers, I’ll look them over and take care of it for you,” she offered.

But first, I needed to have the application and passport copy notarized, then have an apostille placed on them at the office of the secretary of state (its own bureaucratic morass). I was still determined to complete the task, however hopeless it may have already appeared.

I made an appointment at a local branch of Bank of America.

“Are you here to open an account?” asked the banker, an immigrant from South Asia.

“No, I’m here to have a couple of things notarized, I already have an account here.”

“We do not notarize passport copies,” said the banker. “And I cannot notarize your application because there’s no notary block on it.”

“Couldn’t you make an exception?” I asked.

“I can’t, I’m sorry. I deal with this all the time,” she answered.

I returned home and emailed a plea for help to Yandex user support service: “Sirs, what you ask for cannot be accomplished in the US. Here they do not notarize passport copies. And the application also could not be notarized because there is no notary block on it. I don’t know what to do.”

A reply from Russia arrived in the evening:

Hello.
We understand that you have found yourself in a difficult situation, but our rules are mandatory for all users.
We cannot accept unnotarized documents or your signature on the application.
We cannot make an exception for you. We recommend doing what we wrote to you in prior letters—that is the only way of resolving your matter.
With respect,
Ekaterina
User support service

I came out of my home office, walked over to a bookcase, my feet unsteady, and took out a copy of Kafka’s The Trial. It’s been at my bedside ever since—next to a paperback edition of Tanakh and an old Farmer’s Almanac.

Maxim D. Shrayer is a writer and a professor at Boston College. His recent books include Voices of Jewish-Russian Literature and A Russian Immigrant: Three Novellas. Shrayer’s newest book is Of Politics and Pandemics.

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