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Amerika (The Man Who Disappeared)  

- Franz Kafka

Absurdist fiction

The stoker knocked respectfully on the door and when someone called "Come in," he motioned for Karl to walk in without any fear. He stepped in, but stayed at the door, standing. Through the three windows of the room he saw the waves of the sea, and thinking about their happy motions hit him straight in the heart, as if he hadn't been watching the sea nonstop for five long days. Huge ships crossed each other's way and gave in to the ruckus of the waves only as much as their bulk allowed. When you squinted your eyes, the ships seemed to sway from the force of their own bulk. On their masts they carried long but narrow flags, pulled tight from the speed of traveling but still wriggling back and forth. Salute shots rang out, probably from war ships, the cannon of a close one was fondled by the safe, smooth but not quite horizontal movement of its ship, the sunlight reflecting off its steel armor. From the door, you could just make out the small ships and boats as they came in crowds into the openings between the great ships. Behind all this, however, stood New York, and Karl gazed on the skyscrapers with their hundred thousand windows. You knew where you were in this room.

At a round table sat three men, the first a ship's officer in a blue ship's uniform, the other two were clerks from the harbor authority in black American uniforms. On the table various documents piled high, which the officer skimmed over with a pen so he could hand them to the other two, who read them here, made excerpts there, now laid them in their briefcase whenever one of them, who nearly incessantly clicked his teeth, wasn't dictating the minutes to his colleagues.

By the window, a smaller man sat at a writing desk with his back to the door, busying himself with large volumes which were lined up side by side on a strong bookshelf level with his eyes. Next to him a safe stood slightly ajar, and at first glance it was empty.

The second window was empty and gave the best view. But in the area of the third window two men stood in quiet conversation. The first leaned against the window, also wore the ship's uniform and played with the hilt of a sword. The man he talked to was turned to the window and revealed through his various motions a string of medals on the chest of the other. He was in the civil service and had a thin bamboo stick, and since his hands were on his hips, it also stood out like a sword.

Karl didn't have much time to see all this, because soon a servant walked up to them, looking at the stoker as if to say he didn't belong, and asked him what he wanted. The stoker answered as quietly as he was asked, he wanted to speak to the head accountant. The servant, for his part, rejected this request with a motion of his hands, but went on tiptoe to the round table, taking a wide berth around the man with the large volumes. This man, clearly visible, started up immediately at the servant's words, looked around eventually at the man who wished to speak with him, waved fiercely to dismiss the stoker and denounced the servant too, just to be sure. The servant returned to the stoker and spoke as if he were trusting him with a secret: "Get out of here now!"

The stoker looked over to Karl after this answer, as if Karl were his heart, something he could quietly cry to about his pains. Without thinking, Karl broke away, running straight through the room, so that he even brushed up lightly against the officer's chair. The servant ran crouched, his arms prepared for a tackle, as if he were hunting vermin, but Karl was the first to the head accountant's table, where he hung on tight just in case the servant tried to pull him away.

Naturally the entire room livened up immediately. The ship's officers at the table sprung up, the men from the harbor authorities looked on calmly but attentively, the two men at the window stepped close to each other, the servant backed off, believing it wasn't his place to be in the way when the high-ranking men showed interest. The stoker waited intently by the door for a moment, until help was necessary. The ship's officer finally turned in his chair.

Karl rummaged through the secret pocket, which he didn't hesitate to reveal to these people, and took out his passport, which he opened up and lay on the table in place of any further introduction. The head accountant seemed to brush off this pass, because he snipped it aside with two fingers, and so Karl stuck the pass back in, as if the formalities were over and done with.

"I take the liberty of saying," he then began, "that in my opinion the stoker has been wronged. There is here a certain Schubal, who oppresses him. He has served on many ships, ships he can name for all of you, and served to complete satisfaction, he is industrious, thinks highly of his work and it's really impossible to see why he should take orders so poorly precisely on this ship, where the work isn't nearly as difficult as it is, for instance, on commercial ships. Therefore, it could only be slander that's keeping him from making progress and taking away from him the recognition which he would not be missing otherwise. I have only spoken generally about all this, he will bring his specific complaints himself." Karl had addressed all of the men, because in reality all of them were listening, and it seemed more probable that he could find one fair man if he tried all the men together, than if he should try to find that fair man in the head accountant. In addition, Karl had cleverly avoided the fact that he had only known the stoker for a very short time. He would've spoken even better if he had not been bothered by the red face of the man with the bamboo stick, which he had caught sight off right away from his current position.

"It's all correct, word for word," said the stoker before anyone could have a chance to ask him any questions or even look him over. The stoker's hastiness would have been a terrible mistake, if the man with the medals, whom Karl just realized was the captain, hadn't already decided to listen to the stoker. He stuck out his hand and called to the stoker, "Come here!" with a voice firm enough to hit with a hammer. Now everything depended on the stoker's behavior, because Karl had no doubt as to the justice of his cause.

Luckily it became clear just now that the stoker had been around in the world. With exemplary calm he took in one grab a small bundle of paper out of his little trunk, together with a notebook, then went with them right past the head accountant, as if it were the only thing to do, so he could spread out on the windowsill his evidence for the captain. The accountant couldn't stay where he was, so he addressed everyone instead. "The man's a notorious crank," he explained. "He's at the cash desk more than the machine room. He has brought Schubal, an otherwise calm man, to despair. Listen!" He turned to the stoker. "You like to push people around a little too much. How often have you been thrown out of an office while you make your consistently unjustified demands? How often have you come running back and forth from the main office? How often has someone said to you, in all kindness, that Schubal is your direct superior, that you're his inferior, that you just have to come to terms with him? And still, you come here now, when the captain is here, with no sense of shame whatsoever, not even if you start to bother him, and you don't even hesitate to bring this little one, this trained speaker, whom I've never seen on this ship before, to make your vulgar accusations."

Karl had to forcibly keep himself from lunging forward. But then the captain said, "Let's hear the man. Schubal's been get a little too independent, but that doesn't mean I'll agree with you."

The last part applied to the stoker, it was only natural that he couldn't back him up right away, but everything seemed to be on the right track. The stoker began his explanation and from the very beginning controlled himself enough to always refer to Schubal as Mr. Schubal. How Karl rejoiced at the deserted writing desk of the head accountant, where he pushed down on a scale again and again just for fun. Mr. Schubal is unfair. Mr. Schubal prefers foreigners. Mr. Schubal kicked the stoker out of the machine room and made him clean bathrooms, which the stoker knew nothing about. Once he even questioned Mr. Schubal's competence, calling it more apparent than real. By this point Karl was staring at the captain with all his power, like a colleague, so that he wouldn't think badly of the stoker because of his improper way of speaking. All the same, he couldn't hear anything concrete from all this talk, and even though the captain looked straight ahead, determined to hear the stoker to the end this time, the other men became impatient, and the stoker's voice wasn't dominating the room anymore, and that could lead to something dreadful.

About the book:

Karl Rossman has been banished by his parents to America, following a family scandal. There, with unquenchable optimism, he throws himself into the strange and picaresque experiences that lie before him as he slowly makes his way into the interior of the great continent. The novel originally began as a short story called The Stoker.

A menacing allegory of modern life, Kafka's first and unfinished novel is replete with Kafkaesque situations and crude reflections on alienation and the banality of progress.

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