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Kafka’s Cats

An excerpt from a new Hungarian novel imagines a world in which the Prague master survives tuberculosis, gives up writing, and finally finds some peace

Gábor T. Szántó
March 04, 2016
Photocollage: Tablet Magazine
Photocollage: Tablet Magazine
Photocollage: Tablet Magazine
Photocollage: Tablet Magazine

In Berlin Dora was waiting for Kafka. Despite his sallow complexion and cough, he was in considerably better shape than at their last meeting. His spittle was no longer red and his appetite was back. On his face there were still traces of the past months’ torments, but physical labor seemed to strengthen him, his disposition was sunnier, and in general he made a more masculine impression. The day after his arrival he was all set to look for employment. Dora was amazed at his eagerness to get going.

When she found out that he no longer wrote, and at most exchanged letters with her and his sister Ottla, strictly limiting the length of those letters lest he deceive himself by concealing real writings in his correspondence, she was astounded by his self-discipline.

The next day she took him to a carpentry shop, where he was hired and given odd jobs that, with the rudimentary skills already acquired in Vienna, he could handle easily. He also attended a few lectures on horticulture, studied the fundamentals of grain production, the methods of cross-breeding fruit trees, but work in these areas was available only in Wannsee, so they waited for opportunities that were closer by and more favorable. Dora found work too; she went back to the Berlin Jewish Center, where she gave Hebrew lessons to young children, though she did not give up on her acting ambitions.

Kafka stopped writing, with the result that his condition improved steadily, his nights were peaceful. He missed having people around him but didn’t want to risk being recognized. So rather than attend popular lectures on Jewish subjects, he had Dora bring home books. From time to time Ottla sent them small sums of money, as well as fruits and sweets, but they knew that while he may have gained weight, and he did breathe more easily, a longer time must elapse before they could be sure that his sickly constitution had indeed become strong, and that this wasn’t just a temporary improvement.

Because he no longer wrote, and in the shop they spoke mostly about ordinary, trivial things, or now and then about politics, which didn’t interest him that much, by the end of the day his desire to communicate became intense. Thus, they spent the evenings walking arm-in-arm in snowbound Steglitz, in the park in front of City Hall.

On the weekends they ventured even farther, to Grünewald, and they talked, rather Kafka did and Dora listened. Franz kept going back to Yosef Haim Brenner’s book, though he was still struggling with it. Besides the Brenner, he read many other books, but only a page at a time, so it was rather slow going. He became so impatient, he asked Dora to read a few pages and summarize the storyline. What she related disheartened Franz, but also galvanized him.

“Real, flesh-and-blood people will populate the Land; perhaps they’ll draw strength from each other,” Kafka mused during these walks and watched with envy children on sleds. He had the feeling that he and Dora will be going not just to a country, but head straight for the Bible. And for this move, he will have to grow strong not only physically and spiritually but intellectually as well. “To others the books of Moses, the Prophets, the Kings, the Chronicles are metaphors infused with symbolic meaning, but for Jews these tomes are their history, even if they don’t take everything in it literally. Whoever goes to Jerusalem to pray at the Western Wall must know that it is the remains of Solomon’s Temple. If there is a good reason to learn, it is to surmount the gap between the ruins and time.” As he went on talking, his face was flushed.

Dora looked at him with a smile, though she was also fearful that he might get overexcited and catch a cold. Kafka, however, stopped suddenly, fell silent, stared at nothing in particular, then turned to Dora, but still as though he weren’t even there.

“What is it?” she asked, terrified. They had to sit down on a bench. “Crowds,” Kafka said. “I see crowds of people. Unfortunate, miserable masses setting off in the hope of reaching the Land. But before they do, they are… hauled away. The whole thing is like a… pogrom.”

“Calm down, Franz, please,” Dora pleaded as she embraced him. She could feel him trembling; his brow was hot and in a sweat. “Let’s go home, Franz!” she said, even more alarmed, afraid that with this attack of fever the tubercular condition had returned with a vengeance.

Dora didn’t understand what just happened, what caused this trance-like state. She put him to bed, gave him fever reducing medication, had him drink plenty of liquids, then put her arms around him, held him tight, trying hard to drive away his evil thoughts. Still, Franz was shivering all evening; but then, from one minute to the next, he fell into a deep asleep.

By morning his fever was gone, and though his spirits were still low, it seemed as if he didn’t even recall the attack he had the night before. He insisted on going to work. During the day he became totally absorbed in burnishing a tabletop and mortising and gluing table legs. When he went home in the evening, there was no trace of illness.

“If it were up to me,” Franz said during supper, “I would establish not a Jewish but a children’s state. They would receive the kind of education that would make sure that when those children grow up they will hate nobody. There should be no need for borders, not for a Jewish or any other state. The League of Nations,” he explained, “introduced all kinds of regulations after the First World War, with an aim toward protecting minorities. But no one has ever thought of the state-sanctioned protection of children. Even though they are the ones who are in the minority always, everywhere, and at the mercy of grownups. If they won’t be taken care of, they’ll end up just like their parents. They will wage wars and ruin their children, who, too, will go to war and ruin theirs” Kafka expounded all flushed. “It’s this vicious cycle that must be broken, so that violence stop once and for all. It’s our only salvation.”

“This is so good,” Dora replied. “Why not enlarge on it, in writing?”

“I won’t write again,” he said, shaking his head. “The important things will happen anyway, and the less important will simply pass. But we must talk about them, aloud, one on one.”


During the months of self-abnegation Franz experienced the joys of the quotidian: the varied colors and fragrance of flowers and plants, the feel of ordinary materials, the taste of hearty food, the freedom inherent in the regularity and profundity of closed-eye breathing, the kind of freedom that evokes sunlit, open meadows and misty, luxuriant forests; and there was the tactile pleasure of brushing against the surface and curve of objects created by one’s own hands; and the intellectual satisfaction derived from the study of biblical and Talmudic commentaries, as well as the perusal of other writers’ books; and the new-found bodily harmony with Dora, and the fullness of his own happiness, which—now that he was back from Vienna—he felt intensely, in his vitals… All this was enough for him to do without writing. He was now capable of not jotting down his every thought, or record incessantly stories whirling about in his head, and none of this caused him unbearable suffering any more; the knockdown compulsion was on the wane. Surprisingly, the more he distanced himself from his former reflexes, the less he missed writing. He felt as if something had been removed from his body and around the remaining lacuna the soul’s fabric died away.

He was determined to grow stronger in body and soul, expel everything belonging to his past, and prepare for the journey and their new life in Palestine.

But Dora couldn’t acquiesce; she ran off to the nearest well-stocked bookstore on the Kurfürstendamm where she found the volume she was looking for. Upon her return, Kafka watched with an ambivalent smile her excited movements, taking off the wrapping paper and placing the new-smelling book before him.

He wasn’t crazy about the green cloth binding, and not about the layout either. He would have preferred wider margins and more space between the lines. Of course, the publisher wanted to save money. He leafed through the book rather reluctantly, but then with a sudden move lifted the open volume and smelled it, enjoying the fresh printing press smell. Then he made himself comfortable in an armchair and began reading Max Brod’s introductory essay. He was worried that he might find things in it that would cause him disappointment. Every now and then he would shake his head or bury his face in his hands. But then there were moments when he nodded approvingly. Dora, who was chopping vegetables in preparation for dinner, suddenly noticed that there were tears in his eyes.

“What is the matter, Franz?” she said and tried to comfort him.

“This is the hardest part,” he replied and shook his head. “I miss Max! Even his wiseacre self. Klopstock doesn’t come around much any more. I miss Prague. I even miss its anti-Semites.” At this he burst out laughing and soon his nose began to drip. He kept searching his pockets for a handkerchief until Dora handed him one.

“Why don’t you look up Max?” Dora asked. “What would happen if you talked to him?”

Franz shook his head. “It wouldn’t work. With them it just wouldn’t. If I were to see Max… he’d try to persuade me to start writing again. And return to Prague. And after a while I couldn’t say no… Then again, if I began to write… it’s possible I couldn’t any more. Or at least not the way I used to. It could be the end of me. To write or to live. It’s the only chance I’ve got, Dora. Do you see it now?”

He squeezed her hand so hard, she felt a painful twinge in her fingers. She placed her other hand on his wrist and withdrew her fingers.

“If it upsets you so… I shouldn’t show you the later volumes when they come out?”

“They’ll publish everything?” Franz inquired.

Dora saw him at this moment as an overtired, lost child.

“Your books are what we’ll be living on, Franz, at least in part.”

“Kafka was laughing again, but Dora sensed that he was suffering. When he spoke, he was serious again.

“One has to croak to get people’s attention. Though that’s not the reason I wrote. I wanted to blend in rather than stand out. There is nothing personal in any of my writings. But to endure all this is a little easier if I don’t have to explain what I’d written, or listen to how others interpret or misinterpret it. I am sorry if you wanted a different life.”

“You are a fool,” Dora admonished him, then gently cradled his face in her two hands. “I never asked for a life that you didn’t want.”

During his walks in Berlin, on the way home from work, Kafka often thought about the image of the head held high. And while he tried hard not to use metaphors in his writings, this image and its meaning worked their way into his thoughts. Lately he had become more aware of the decorative façades of buildings, the balconies on each floor, the graceful curves of the plaster work, and the winding ivy under the roofs. He tried to straighten his back so as not to walk like Jews in some cartoons. The constant impression that he was being watched was fading but did not go away, and wouldn’t as long as he stayed in Europe, if it mattered at all where he was. Because this gaze was trained on him from the very depth of his being; it was inseparable from his person. And the pair of eyes searching out other prying eyes was itself snooping around conspicuously, thus calling attention to itself. Franz was hoping that once he’ll live among his own, the suspicion based on his fears won’t bother him that much, though he knew well that this, too, was part of his neurosis. It wasn’t only Czechs and Germans or women whose stare he felt on himself, but also his father’s, his unceasingly critical stare. It was with the father’s scornful look that the son sized up his own gangly body, his hollow cheeks and jug ears; it was with his eyes that he looked over and judged his every act. What was most painful to him, regardless of how strongly he wanted to free himself from this obsession, was the realization that if he didn’t keep observing himself, he will see the whole world with his father’s eyes.

He did have an inkling that every individual finds himself in this state, even if he is not fully aware of it. He wasn’t sure it was worth going ahead and trying to give shape to all these phenomena. Isn’t art itself corrupt, since in the final analysis it provides entertainment, even if it does make one realize ultimately that there is no way out of one’s sorry state. And aren’t all great works self-serving fripperies, going over the same old lessons without offering any help; and isn’t it tragicomic to rely on mere words which, for want of something better, also keep repeating the same hackneyed teachings. Next to religion and philosophy, art can be a consolation of sorts, if, at best, one can articulate it, and with that extend one’s miserable existence.

Dora accepted Franz’s decision to give up literature and not to have anything more to do with his published books, except to acknowledge that to cover their living expenses the reissuing of some of his older works was indispensable. But she wasn’t ready to give up her own ambition to be an actress. Besides looking for opportunities to study acting, something else preoccupied her. The longer they lived together the more positively she felt that she wanted to have a child with Franz Kafka.

Excerpted from Kafka’s Cats, published in 2014 by Noran Libro, Budapest. Translated by Ivan Sanders. Reprinted with permission from the author.

Gábor T. Szántó is a novelist, essayist, and the editor-in-chief of Szombat, a Hungarian Jewish political and cultural monthly, and co-screenwriter of the film based on one of his short stories, 1945.

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