Historical Fiction Prose Translations

The Next Village

This is my reading of Kafka’s short short story “The Next Village”, rewritten.

My grandfather used to say “life is astonishingly short. To me, looking back over it, life seems so foreshortened that I scarcely understand, for instance, how a young man can decide to ride over to the next village one day and never make it. Not in the span of his fairly normal, fairly happy lifespan. 

“That amount of time fell far short of what he would have needed to complete that journey. He set out that morning, on his bicycle, with only one thing on his mind: getting bread from the bakery in the next village. Not exactly earth-shattering, but this was rural Niedersachsen. Everyone made their daily pilgrimage. Sure, we had a bakery in our village, too, but this one was different. You could smell Frau Berger’s Laugenbrezeln from the end of the street. 

“So, there he was, making his way over there one Sunday morning – almost everything stopped on Sundays, but not bread. So there he was, nipping down the lane on his Dutch bicycle (the north German plains are very flat), and there’s a roadblock. We lived in the countryside, see, and in the grand scheme of things, the war barely touched us. No Red Army came marching in in 1945, spreading their liberating terror. There were no air raids. The closest we came to that was when an errant bomb landed on poor old Herr Schneider’s barn roof, blowing it to Kingdom Come, as they say. We feared there would be more, but there never were. As I said, the war barely touched us. We were far enough from the coast, and far enough from the East. Our closest neighbours were the Danes to the North and the Dutch to the West, neither known for their tenacity. But it did slowly drain our able-bodied men, local lads who went off to fight for their Führer and either never came back or were never the same again. 

“So, there he was in front of the roadblock. A few troops jump out of a van idling by the roadside. Not Waffen SS mind, but the normal lot. The Wehrmacht. They weren’t going to send the big shots out recruiting. It didn’t take much to intimidate some country boys then, and it still doesn’t now. Rustle the bushes at the wrong time of night, and you’ll see what I mean.

“So they say to him “why aren’t you out fighting for the Vaterland, my boy?” Your Uncle Hans replied something along the lines of ‘essential war work’. Up until then, he’d been working in the fields, as country folk do. A nation needs bread and potatoes more than it needs Lebensraum. 

“How old are you?”, they ask. He must have been around nineteen years old at the time. It was 1943. The Führer was getting desperate by then. Sixteen-year-olds were already driving tanks, with barely a shadow of peach fuzz on their lip.

“Hans got bundled into the van. They weren’t really asking him nicely. A few others left that day too, conscripted. It’s a polite word for press-ganged. Frau Becker’s son was among them. He never came back either, but for other reasons. He was only seventeen, shamed into fighting a losing war. 

“Hans never came back. He never made it to the next village. No, no, he didn’t die either. He just never came back. Somehow, he made it to New York with all the rest. I guess he needed a fresh start, too. I wonder how it must have felt to share a boat, maybe even a cabin, with the Juden. He never mentioned it in his letters. I never believed they were the enemy, but you have no idea what an effect that Party had on the minds of young and old alike. 

So, Hans had his Stunde Null. I stayed where I was born, and loved him from afar. He was only ever in the Wehrmacht. Hardly a war criminal. They were having a hard time sorting between soldiers and refugees at that point. So many had lost everything, including their papers. Others with blood on their hands had forged new ones. 

“He met an American girl, learned a trade, married. I guess you could call it the American Dream. But he never made it to the next village.”

Prose Translations

Kafka: A Focus on Reading

 “My grandfather used to say: “Life is astonishingly short. To me, looking back over it, life seems so foreshortened that I scarcely understand, for instance, how a young man can decide to ride over to the next village without being afraid that — not to mention accidents — even the span of a normal happy life may fall far short of the time needed for such a journey.”

Franz Kafka, from Wedding Preparations in the Country and Other Stories, translated by Willa and Edwin Muir (London: Penguin, 1987)

This is a very short short story. It was the ‘springboard’ for some of my creative writing this week.

Put fifteen people in a room, and tell them to fold a piece of A4 paper whichever way they like, and chances are everyone will fold it differently. This is how we read. Translation represents a certain reading of a text – a personal, subjective reading. Translation is retelling, and we are the storytellers. There is no single, universal meaning embedded in any text, so we should stop looking for it and trying to extract it. Not all of literature is communicative. It is first and foremost art. Otherwise, we would just write a report, wouldn’t we? As Walter Benjamin puts it, the story bears the mark of the storyteller, just as earthenware pottery bears the marks of the potter’s hands.

So what is going on in this story? There are several ways to come at it. We can come at it from a very symbolic, metaphorical angle: time is being concertinaed – it isn’t linear, it moves in circles and crumples in on itself. Kafka here is confusing the spatial with the temporal – the passage of time here is represented as a journey. Time slips through your fingers and passes before you know it. There is a feeling here of distinct dissatisfaction, of never being able to see and experience everything.

Kafka’s temporal and spatial markers are much vaguer than in most fiction: how long is a life span? There are no spatial markers, other than a road. There’s no real setting. This is defamiliarisation, a literary device which Kafka had a masterful grip upon. There is also an interesting case of perspective at play here. Someone is clearly listening to their grandfather telling a story, or sharing some wisdom. But is that it? What are we supposed to make of this? Walter Benjamin, being a master of obtuse prose himself, unsurprisingly adored Kafka. In his appraisal of Kafka’s philosophical and fictional masterpieces, he put it wonderfully:

“Kafka’s parables, however, unfold in the first sense, the way a bud turns into a blossom. That is why their effect resembles poetry”

Walter Benjamin

On the other hand, we could take a more concrete look at it. A man sets out one day, presumably in or on some kind of vehicle, and never makes it to the next village, despite living to a ripe old age? Why? Well, we can fill in the gaps. My imagination immediately started whirring, thinking of scenarios. Perhaps he is conscripted on the way, during wartime, and never comes back. Maybe he falls in love with a girl in his own village and never leaves. Maybe the next village is destroyed by an accidental air raid (the countryside was never bombed on purpose), or it’s flooded to create a reservoir. I usually prefer to take a more concrete angle on things, so I’ve taken the idea of a grandfather spinning a yarn and turned it into a short story myself, borrowing only the opening ideas from Kafka. Look out for my next post.