cover image Kafka’s Son

Kafka’s Son

Szilárd Borbély, trans. from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet. Seagull, $25 trade paper (184p) ISBN 978-1-80309-268-3

This elegant posthumous work from Borbély (1963–2014; The Dispossessed) depicts the awkward relationship between Czech writer Franz Kafka and his father, Hermann, a hardworking department store owner. Borbély offers glimpses of Kafka’s quotidian routine (“We see Kafka, Franz Kafka, as he walks along the Grober ring”), and of his particularities (an obsession with pens, a dread of the sight of hands, an intense aversion to the office where he works). The father’s and son’s varied relationship to their Jewish identity causes an unbridgeable rift. Hermann has responded to the persecution he faced earlier in his life by masking his Jewishness so as to appeal to his gentile customers while remaining committed to his faith, and he is flummoxed by his son’s rejection of their religion, lack of interest in starting a family, and weak demeanor (“he did not understand him, he only loved him,” Borbély writes of Hermann’s attitude toward his son). Kafka’s tortured relationship with his father is well known to the author’s readers, but Borbély adds to the lore by exploring the limits of how much anyone can understand another, whether a father and son, or a reader and writer, as Mulzet suggests in an illuminating afterword about Borbély’s long-held identification with Kafka. Kafka fans will enjoy this. (Dec.)