Rebirth and Redemption in Amerika
"Karl soon got used to his new circumstances in his uncle's house, and his uncle was also very kind to him in every little matter, so Karl never had to learn from bitter experience, which was the lot of so many when they began a new life in a new country.
Karl's room was on the sixth floor of a building, whose five lower floors, and three more which were subterranean, were taken up by his uncle's business concern. The light that came into his room through two windows and a balcony door never ceased to astound Karl when he emerged from his little bedroom in the morning...one couldn't look for pity here, and what Karl had read about America was perfectly correct in this regard; here the fortunate few seemed quite content to enjoy their good fortune with only the pampered faces of their friends for company.
A narrow balcony ran along the entire length of the room. but what would probably have been the highest vantage point in Karl's hometown here did not afford much more than a view of a single street, which ran in a dead straight line between two rows of lopped-off houses until it vanished in the distance where the massive forms of a cathedral loomed out of the haze. In the morning and in his dreams at night, that street was always full of swarming traffic. Seen from above, it appeared to be a swarming kaliedescope of distorted human figures and the roofs of vehicles of all kinds, from which a new and amplified and wilder mixture of noise, dust, and smells arose, and all this was held and penetrated by a mightly light, that was forever being scattered, carried off, and eagerly returned by the multitudes of objects, and that seemed so palpable to the confused eye that it was like a sheet of glass spread out over the street that was being continually and violently smashed.
Cautious as the uncle was in all things, he urged Karl for the moment in all seriousness, to avoid all manner of commitments, He was to absorb and examine everything, but not allow himself to be captured by it. The first days of a European in America were like a new birth, and while Karl shouldn't be afraid, one did get used to things here faster than when entering the human world from beyond, he should bear in mind that his own initial impression did stand on shaky feet, and he shouldn't allow them any undue influence over subsequent judgements, with the help of which, after all, he meant to live his life. He himslef had known new arrivals, who, instead of sticking by these useful guidelines, would for instance stand on the balcony for days on end, staring down on the street like lost sheep. That was certain disorientation! Such solitary inactivity, gazing down on an industrious New York day, might be permitted to visitor, and perhaps even, with reservations, recommended to him, but for someone who would be staying here it was catastrophic, one could safely say, even, if it was a slight exaggeration. And theuncle actually pulled a face every time when, in the course of one of his visits, which he made at unpredictable times but always once a day, he happened to find Karl on the balcony. Karl soon realized this, and so denied himself, as far as possible, the pleasure of standing out on the balcony." -- from Kafka's Amerika
Franz Kafka’s hauntingly beautiful Amerika or The Man Who Disappeared is strikingly different from his darker fiction, very much a fairy tale, the story of the struggle of a small boy in an overpowering city. Karl Rossman, a European boy of sixteen, exiled by his parents for the questionable behavior of a servant girl, embarks upon a quest in the new world, traveling through city after indifferent, unfeeling city, passing from the shelter of one guardian to that of the next, slowly abandoning his childhood as he dons a newfound maturity. While we soon come to understand that Karl is of an outstanding character- compliant, considerate, and kind- we also become aware of the boy’s remarkable naiveté he is perhaps excessively trusting and obedient, lacking the worldly experience that brings with it fortitude and resilience, qualities critical in so demanding a society. Karl’s innocence and simplicity distinguish him from the multitudes, placing him at the mercy of a cruel world for so long. In this passage, Kafka manipulates comparative and contrasting imagery such as strong metaphors and similes and detailed juxtapositions in addition to various other literary devices to subtly yet startlingly convey Karl’s amazement and the merciless, mesmerizing nature of the world, thus revealing the fundamental disparity between the two, the source of conflict and the reason for Karl’s quest.
Kafka cleverly uses imagery, diction, and syntax in his detailed descriptions of both Karl and New York, expertly characterizing the two. Many immigrants, including Karl, are almost religiously compared to “lost sheep,” left destitute after their “new birth” in the world. Karl, like an infant, stands on “shaky feet” in his “little” bedroom, venturing slowly onto his “narrow” balcony. Such simple comparisons and connotations demonstrate that Karl is childlike, small and impressionable. In fact, descriptions of Karl in this passage are very brief, also small in comparison to the words lavished on the city. Uncle Jakob, the second of a series of guardian figures in Karl’s journey, serves to shelter the young boy from the perilous allure of the city, but in the process, hinders him, an obstacle to his enlightenment. For the time being, he does not have to “learn from bitter experience,” and is free to live a privileged life. Jakob keeps the boy isolated, almost imprisoned on “the sixth floor” of his lofty penthouse, far above the world below, hopelessly alone. However, mere physical separation cannot mask charms of the outside world.
The city is deceptively simple at first glance, Karl can only see a “single street, which (runs)in a dead straight line,” this presents an image of the city as small, alone, and straightforward as himself. But in fact, New Yorkis “industrious” and “unpredictable,” a “massive” haven for the “fortunate few” rather than the “poor little immigrant.” The city is hypnotic, a “distorted,” “wild,” “swarming kaleidoscope” that engulfs the senses. The lengthy, winding sentences punctuated with disquieting images conveys this effect simply and flawlessly, alternately soothing and shocking, demanding our attention and yet still stunning us, unsuspecting.
The contrast between little Karl and the enormous city is made evident through literal juxtaposition, emphasizing their incompatibility. The “highest vantage point” in Karl’s old home is compared directly with the heights of the city and its incomprehensible views, highlighting the scale of the transformation Karl must undergo to achieve assimilation. Indeed, Karl views the street from the “sixth floor” of a skyscraper, from where people appear “distorted human figures” – a description derived not only from his great physical distance, but surely also from his inability to comprehend these cold Americans, due to vast, irreconcilable cultural, spiritual, and emotional discrepancies. Thus Karl is isolated in innumerable ways, a model of “solitary inactivity” directly before the “industrious New York day.”
Beneath this imagery, further literary significance is present as symbolism surfaces to stress the hazards of America, foreshadowing Karl’s difficult journey ahead. Light is frequently referenced in the passage, beautiful, pure, and captivating to young Karl. It “never (ceases) to astound” him, illuminating his window each day. Similarly, Karl renews his aspirations daily; thus, light easily represents Karl’s hopes and ambitions, perhaps even the hopes of humanity.
However, the city’s promises are still illusory; it distracts its “confused” inhabitants, deluding them, making the light, their dreams, seem almost “palpable” one moment, just before they are again “scattered”, so that their ideals are “being continually and violently smashed” in a cruel game that Karl will inevitably be “captured by” as he descends into the depths of society, where little light can penetrate. Just as his seemingly benevolent uncle and apparently eager companions delude the boy with false hopes, the sparkle of these fascinating lights deceive our hero, endangering him many times before his salvation.
Thus, Kafka skillfully weaves the web of language, conveying his meanings and the plight of Karl Rossman with incredible delicacy, using an intricate pattern of imagery to express utter isolation, despondency, and futility. Karl and all those exiled to America are aptly described with the aid of similes, metaphors, and carefully chosen adjectives. New York City, with its promises and cruelty, is depicted with even more depth, with images describing it superficially relating points about its true, devious nature through symbolism, word choice, and syntax. When all of these desperately disparate images converge, awkwardly sharing sentences, the inherent incompatibility becomes obvious, as does the fate of young Karl. Kafka’s descriptions, so lacking in sensuous language, are expertly, meticulously detailed, so softly and subtly composed that the reader remains unconscious of his work, but therefore becomes emotionally absorbed in the hero’s quest, feeling the tale reflected in his own reality.