Monday, June 06, 2011

Living Franz Kafka's "The Castle"

I noted that the other day, June 3, was the anniversary of existentialist author Franz Kafka's death in 1924. Like most people my age I read his "Metamorphosis" in school, the story of a man who awakens to find he's become a giant bug. I also read much of one his other novels, his unfinished work "The Castle," and that's a funny story.

Kafka wrote in German, but he was a Jew from Prague, in what is now the Czech Republic but was, during most of his life, then a part of Austria-Hungary. Wikipedia sums up what I remember of "The Castle" perfectly: "The Castle (German: Das Schloß) is a novel by Franz Kafka. In it a protagonist, known only as K., struggles to gain access to the mysterious authorities of a castle who govern the village for unknown reasons. Kafka died before finishing the work, but suggested it would end with the Land Surveyor dying in the village; the castle notifying him on his death bed that his 'legal claim to live in the village was not valid, yet, taking certain auxiliary circumstances into account, he was permitted to live and work there'. Dark and at times surreal, The Castle is about alienation, bureaucracy, the seemingly endless frustrations of man's attempts to stand against the system, and the futile and hopeless pursuit of an unobtainable goal." It's a kind of horror story, not of monsters or sudden frights, but of drawn-out skin-crawling frustration.

I spent a chunk of the summer of 1976 attending Jagiellonian University's Institute of Polish Language and Culture in Kraków, Poland. I was between high school and college, and while unlike most of my classmates in the program I was not of Polish ancestry, I was a bit of a Slavophile. I'd studied Russian through High School and I jumped at the chance to spend a summer abroad; behind the Iron Curtain no less. It was a great summer, and the program was quite educational as well an excuse to be escorted around the country by bus and see some really cool stuff.

We had a weekend off, and I decided I wanted an adventure. I couldn't believe that having flown all that way I was only going to get to see bits and pieces of one country. So I looked at a map, found some train schedules, and decided I would forge bravely on my own to visit neighboring Czechoslovakia, an entity I realize in my middle age is now as obsolete as Austria-Hungary.

From my base of Kraków, first I got myself to the Silesian coal town of Katowice. There was not so much to see there, except for a massive statue of Lenin in a roundabout. It was all huge uniform post-war Communist housing blocks and factories: not quaint nor inviting. But there was a train station. First I got on the wrong, and very crowded, train. I pushed my way into a crowd before I realized my error and pushed my way out the other side. Sadly my camera didn't make it out with me, but it took me a little while to realize that. Anyway, I've no photos of the massive Lenin statue as a result, no proof, in fact, of the entire excursion except what is burned into my memory.

What was neither purloined from my pocket nor fell on the train floor was my choice of reading for my excursion, which was of course Franz Kafka's "The Castle." I'm not sure what I was thinking: maybe good train reading for a journey to Kafka's homeland? I might have been a slightly intense, angst-filled seventeen-year-old, but I was curiously blind to the omens which were shouting at me, "Turn back young man!" Apparently our Polish lessons hadn't gotten that far, and I wasn't good at reading those metaphorical Signs.

I found the right train and settled in for the journey to the Czech backwater of Ostrava, a mere hop over the border but still on that other side of the Soviets' curtain of iron. I remember some military border guards, a handful of raised eyebrows at a young American traveling alone, but I found myself getting off the train in the lovely woodsy main square of Ostrava. I had a pocket full of American Express travelers checks, some Polish zlotys, a map, and the name of a hotel. I was by then accustomed to Eastern Europe's strange mix of old and new. I don't remember a lot about how Ostrava looked except that the hotel I eventually stayed in was old and dusty, while much else looked new and strangely out of scale as though it was built of Lego. Oh yes, it turns out nobody in Ostrava spoke English. The air was damp, cool and fresh, despite the occasional whiff of coal smoke. But oddly, everything around me was closed down tight.

I must have arrived on a Saturday morning. The first thing I learned was that in socialist Czechoslovakia, one weekend a month was reserved for the workers' leisure, and all businesses were closed, including banks, museums, government ministries, tourist offices, and telecommunications offices. Guess what weekend I arrived in Ostrava?

There was nothing to do and I had no Czech money.

I went up to some sort of militia kiosk and inquired where I might change some money. The militiaman spoke neither English nor Polish, and I no Czech. It was the hated lingua franca of the Soviet bloc but I tried out my high school Russian. Success! Although he spoke too quickly for me, I figured out enough to understand that everything was closed, and I was the proud owner of unspendable money. I wandered around town and found the Hotel I had planned to stay at. No, while they would have loved to accept American cash or Czech crowns, they didn't accept my mysterious travelers checks. The food from the restaurant off the lobby smelled delicious. And was definitely not free.

I shuffled out the door and wandered around the deserted streets in the center of Ostrava with my bag in tow and looked at all the closed shops. I sat on a bench by the train station and resumed my reading of "The Castle." K had arrived in this mysterious village with its mysterious castle. He found himself trapped in a bureaucratic nightmare, and came to the understanding that he could neither stay nor leave. He was trapped. Literal darkness was falling around him. Oh my God. It came to me with a sudden realization, as the real-world shadows lengthened. I looked at my train schedule: the next train back to Poland was not til the next day. A policeman eyed me nervously. I was hungry. I had no place to sleep. I, who had been afraid to go to sleep-away camp a few short years before, was alone in a Communist country. As far as anyone knew, I was safely ensconced in my dorm in Kraków. Uh oh. I could do nothing but sit on my bench and read.

Eventually I went back to the Militia Kiosk. I tried to convey my desperation to the uniformed, blonde woman who now occupied the seat behind the window. Back in Poland we had all learned that the best way to change our money was privately, with friends or family of our minders and instructors. Cold hard dollars gave us Polish zloty at a rate hundreds of times better than we could get at an official money-changer. This was in this long-ago days not only pre-ATM but pre-global economy: the money of the Soviet bloc was worthless outside the Soviet bloc and kept at strange artificial exchange rates. Traveling to East Europe you had to actually prove you were going to exchange a portion of hard currency at official rates, basically giving some of your money away for free to the government. We tried to avoid that as much as possible, which made Poland a bargain even for a poor student like me on savings in dollars from my after-school job and an allowance.

Somehow in broken Russian me and the militiawoman broached the subject of the black market. I showed her my travelers checks. She got on the phone and read them to somebody on the other line. "A-myer-i-kan Eks-press," she sounded out. There was a lot of back and forth. "Come back later," she told me. I returned to my bench. Forlorn. Hungry.

After an hour I went back to the kiosk. No, she said, she couldn't help me. Didn't I have any actual American dollars? Nothing? Stupidly, I had nothing. I had Polish Zlotys. "Wait," she said. "Zlotys?" She got back on the phone. It made no sense to me, but somehow the worthless Polish Zlotys were practically dollars when it came to Czech crowns. She could help me. "Wait for my friend," she said in Russian. A man in a little cap approached the kiosk; she waved me away with him. He spoke no English either. Just more Russian. We ducked into a doorway. He gave me Czech crowns for my zlotys, at a black market rate far above what I could have gotten in the closed banks for either my travelers checks or the Zlotys themselves. Having just sealed a bond through antisocial crime the militiawoman pretended not to see me when I neared her kiosk again. I telegraphed my profound gratitude and turned away toward the Hotel.

I was rewarded with a musty and uncomfortable room in an aged prewar building. But I had a roof over my head, I was filled with relief. After I opened my bag at the foot of the bed I went downstairs and caught a meal of hot, tasty goulash as the restaurant prepared to close. The streets outside the hotel were quiet and empty...there would be no pub crawl. I returned to my room, turned on the lamp, and returned to Kafka's nightmare world where nothing went right. Fortunately, I slept, and unlike Gregor Samsa awoke to find myself still me, in a quiet strange land. I packed my bag and found my train ticket. I set "The Castle" on the table by the bed and turned and left the room, locking the door behind me as I headed back to the station.


  1. I loved this story you told, ish. We were just a couple of years off of ‘almost’ being in the same place at the same time. From June 1978 thru January 1979 I was residing in West Berlin, to go anywhere outside of the city we of course had to transit East Germany to get there.

    I can’t remember the exact date we drove to Prague, Czechoslovakia for a little visit. I was hoping my passport would shed some exact light on the subject, but alas no recognizable stamps. It was an interesting time, as this was my first visit to a Communist country. Being the free-wheeling American that I am, I wasn’t sure I liked being sent to a particular state run hotel to stay or the state sponsored tour of the city that we took that extolled the virtues of the Communist party at every turn or stop, but that was the way it was done. Our tour guide was a woman, mid-seventyish, soft and grandmotherly sweet, she was noticeably happy at being able to show and guide us through the city, to tell us about the churches that the government had supplied restoration funds for and allowed to be re-opened. I remember Prague being markedly different from the relatively close non-Communist city of Vienna.

    The reason why I wanted to go to Prague was that my mother always said that her ancestors came from Czechoslovakia – though I realized later that was not exactly the case since Czechoslovakia didn’t emerge as a country until 1918 and her ancestral period was earlier than that. I was able to find the ship manifest that showed the ancestors in question as coming from Bohemia. Which I delighted in as I have always believed my mother came from gypsy stock – a fact she would neither confirm nor deny, but a story I am sticking with to my grave.

    I relate this little vignette as another example of the appearance and disappearance of countries over the years. There are many cases where indeed, ‘you can’t go home again’.

  2. Annie I went to Prague in the mid-1990s, which I guess was not long after the end of communism. It was a beautiful town, but I was surprised how quickly they had divested themselves of most of the trappings of communism. There were more ATMs on the main drag in the old city than in Manhattan. Fascinating!

    6 months in Berlin in 1978! THat sounds exciting. Another time, wasn't it?