How Franz Kafka met Karl May but still didn’t end up in America
Karl May met Franz Kafka on a ship to the United States. Fact or a brilliant piece of fiction?
In his mind, the adventure author Karl May visited the United States a million times. But it is not until September 1908 that the 66 year-old, accompanied by his second wife, Klara, actually boards ship to New York in Bremerhaven. As fate will have it, Karl May meets the famous Franz Kafka on board. The very gaunt and very pale young man is standing at the railing. God forbid, is he about to throw himself into the sea? Who else but Karl May and his much younger wife could save him for the sake of life and literature? The ensuing love triangle completes the ingredients to this great story.
Peter Henisch’s novel is a hilarious fantasy, an intimate novel settled somewhere between fact and fiction. With lightness, yet lots of sensitivity he succeeds in joining what we were drilled to keep apart from an early age: Franz Kafka vs. Karl May, high vs. low culture, living a lie vs. living in fear. It comes as no surprise that this book sends sparks flying!
Novak is a late bloomer when it comes to the wide world of emotions, which he discovers in a hospital, of all places. Because his hospital roommate keeps him from sleeping, the Indonesian nurse Manuela lends him her walkman and tapes, thus infecting him with her love of opera. After being discharged Novak somehow can’t get back into the routine of his regular, ordinary life.
Manuela has opened his ears – not only to opera, but also to the annoying racket of everyday life: noise from lawn mowers, jackhammers and his wife Herta. While he continues his new of listening to opera, Herta suspects another woman behind his new passion. She’s not that far off the mark. But Manuela suddenly disappears. Was she merely an illusion on the stage of Novak’s middle-aged dreams? Or could his wife somehow be involved in her quiet disappearance? Even without her, the grand finale is a striking as an opera: cruelly dramatic.
Josef Urban's one thought is to get away – so a car with the key left in the ignition offers the very chance. It is not his car, but this matters to him just as little as the fact that he has no driver's licence. He soon realises, however, that there is a girl asleep on the back seat. When she wakes up he tells her to get out, but she refuses.
Maria, a schoolgirl, is the lover of the RI teacher to whom the car belongs. She is pregnant, and has little sympathy with the victim of the theft. She can understand Urban's escape attempt, however. The border is closer that they realise, and they suddenly find themselves in Italy. Josef is enjoying the trip and the company; but he cannot avoid feeling responsible for the girl – a thankless role, especially as it is hardly consistent with his love for the absurd.
Nominated for the German Book Prize 2005 (Longlist)
In this book Peter Henisch, taking the example of the special relationship between himself and his father (a well-known press photographer in his days), reflects on the general background to the generation conflict that was aggravated by World War II. Here is a son who asks, and a father who answers. The narration is overshadowed by a terminal illness, but it is a vivid discussion, as well as the record - however conflicting the attitudes of mind - of a mutual Paperbackroach. The result is largely an examination of problematic attitudes towards reality: both the press reporter and the writer take reality as their raw material. First published 1975, this book has lost nothing through the lapse in time, but has rather gained in relevance. Residenz now presents this version, revised and (mostly in the final section) expanded by the author.
Peter Henisch’s novel follows the title’s hero over the course of half a century on his search for his father and happiness. It’s the story of the son of an Austrian tram conductress and a black American serviceman, born 1946 in Vienna. At this time, and indeed up to the 1970s, there were hardly any coloured people in Vienna and they were not regarded as a threat. By the 1990s, when Peter Jarosch briefly and unsuccessfully returns there after a spell in New Orleans, the issue of “foreigners” has become one of the most politically explosive in Austria. Peter’s colour, however, is not the essence of what makes him different. The real point is that he simply feels different. This is brought home to him in childhood when, cast as one of the Three Kings in the Nativity play, he, for obvious reasons, is the only one who does not have to make up.
Henisch gives us in fact a substantial character study in which the fortunes of the hero-narrator subtly but sweepingly follow those of post-war Austria itself. A plus, moreover, for the Anglo-Saxon reader is the device of moving part of the action to the USA, to which Peter emigrates and where, one is led to surmise, he ends as an alcoholic bar pianist.