MFS Modern Fiction Studies 51.3 (2005) 706-709
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John Zilcosky uses a familiar postmodern strategy to frame his readings of Kafka. He seeks out the neglected margins of Kafka's work to set it in a new framework. In this regard his strategy is reminiscent of deconstructive or psychoanalytic approaches in calling up the neglected detail to illuminate the totality. Zilcosky is, however, reticent about deconstructive readings that turn Kafka's work into a purveyor of unending paper chases. He prefers Freudian decipherings that do not keep him from stressing that Kafka lived in a real place, at a real time, namely, when imperialist Europe was infatuated with exoticism and colonialism. Building on work by Peter Neumeyer and others, Zilcosky recalls that Kafka was smitten with infantile travel literature, German versions of Horatio Alger fictions that served, in a broad sense, the ideology of European imperialism. Thus, the Kafka who hardly ever traveled becomes a writer of fictions negatively permeated by an ideology of exotic conquest, fueled by dreams of travel abroad and imperial success.
By attempting to impose a unified grid on Kafka's work, however, Zilcosky appears to have fallen into the same trap into which deconstructionists fall when they read every sign as a self-referential semantic event signifying only its own différance. Finding hidden motifs of travel and the exotic in every work, Zilcosky creates a [End Page 706] Kafka who looks, rather lamely, like a postcolonial theorist forever at work finding discursive strategies that designate the failure of colonial discourse to disguise its malfunctioning.
Kafka's Travels begins with considerations of an usually overlooked text written jointly by young Kafka and Max Brod, Richard and Samuel, to bring forth the theme of travel. This text from the margins is adduced in order to advance the claim that Kafka wants to subvert the exoticism of popular culture through his and Brod's description of a boring train trip in central Europe. On rereading the text—the first chapter of a novel never pursued—I personally found little connection with exoticism in it, though its description of a train trip clearly marks the beginning of Kafka's fearful fascination with travel as a metaphor that was never far from his mind throughout his life. Zilcosky is right to stress the dialectic, from the beginning in Kafka, between the attraction of home and the impulse toward some other world. This dialectic led Kafka to write a major work like Amerika .
Zilcosky's following chapter on Amerika is in fact splendid. Contextualizing this unfinished novel in terms of Goethe's and Flaubert's travel writings, he shows that the protagonist's search for a new home— Heimat —in America derives from the utopian exoticism of the early twentieth century, and he makes a good case for reading the novel in terms of a self-defeating desire of finding an ever distant utopia. The quest for it can only result in the protagonist's disappearance—underscored by the fact that Kafka called him Der Verschollene [The Disappeared One]. This chapter is a real contribution to Kafka scholarship.
If the lure of travel is clear in Amerika, it is not so obvious in The Trial, and Zilcosky proposes the idea that this novel involves traveling at home. He again seizes on the margins to make this reading by highlighting a fragment of the novel in which Joseph K. considers traveling to see his mother. (He seemingly begins the trip, though it is not clear he is going to complete it.) This fragment putatively shows that K. is another traveler in search of a Heimat. That is a lot of meaning to demand from a short fragment. Moreover, Zilcosky cannot resist adding a Freudian overlay to this fragment mentioning mama before coming to the conclusion that K. is a tourist in his hometown. K.'s meanderings in search of the court that condemns him admittedly suggests a...