Permission To Say Kafkaesque

Every up-and-coming Nigerian MC—male or female—knows the value of saying “put your hands in the air” while grabbing their crotch. This is known. It is how they show the world, and their peers, that they belong to the community of fire-spitting wordsmiths. This is known. In the same vein, every aspiring member of the Nigerian literati knows the importance of dropping big, brain-racking, headache-inducing words in conversation. This is known.

A few months into my year of reading literary fiction, I started to encounter a few names with increasing frequency. Essays, interviews, even meta-stories about Joyce, Chekhov, Hemingway, Nabokov and Kafka were everywhere. I had read an Hemingway novel as a kid—although I can’t remember anything about A Farewell to Arms without Google’s help, had read some of the stories in Joyce’s Dubliners, and was already a fan of Nabokov’s short stories. Franz kafka, however, was a stranger to me. And of all the dead white men above, his name was the most ubiquitous.

Jaroslav Róna's bronze statue of Franz Kafka in Prague. Source: Andy Hay via Flickr
Jaroslav Róna’s bronze statue of Franz Kafka in Prague. Source: Andy Hay via Flickr

My first proper encounter with him was via Murakami’s Samsa In Love, a short story I would later realise was based on a narrative reversal of the premise of Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Then I read Zadie Smith on Kafka. Zadie, in her usual brilliance and intellectual rigour, transformed Kafka from just another dead white author, to someone I needed to read as a matter of urgency.

I love Murakami’s short stories. And exempting geographical restraints, I’m a proper Zadie Smith groupie. So it mattered to me that they, and many other writers I respect, consider Kafka an essential person in literature.

So, I downloaded Metamorphosis, but did not read it.

I started to attend literary events and, again, there it was, all around me, in whispers: kafkaesque, kafkaesque, kafkaesque. One day, travelling from Ibadan to Lagos, I decided to read Metamorphosis and give myself the permission to say the word. In spite of all the lofty reasons above, the ability to say Kafkaesque without making a fool of myself is perhaps the motivation that pushed me to encounter Samsa’s misery.

I would later discover that I was just slow. People say kafkaesque all the time without reading a word of the man’s work. Just like they sometimes use Joyceian, Chekhovian, Hemingwayesque, Nabokovian with no proper knowledge of what they mean.

I finished that e-copy of Metamorphosis, bought a book that contained more of his stories, and read them all. Kafka’s Metamorphosis, published 100 years ago, still remains one of the greatest stories ever written. But after reading him, I am now less inclined to use Kafkaesque. I see people say words like that in regular conversation, outside of an essay, and imagine they have some deficiency they are making up for. They must have flaws that require the help of therapists—or plastic surgeons.

Kafkaesque is thrown around, indiscriminately, by those who have little idea what the man’s work is about. This also is known.


Featured image by CHRISTIAAN TONNIS via Flickr


4 Replies to “Permission To Say Kafkaesque”

  1. Every profession or group has its lingo, that language which members speak and which excludes non-members. Some people know just enough to wear the membership badge I suppose. Although I read literary fiction and sometimes write it, my vocabulary and knowledge of the authors you mention would disqualify me from the club. And for me, that’s okay.

    ” … while grabbing their crotch.” A female MC doing this? 🙂

    Nice essay.

    1. I think I use jargon too. It’s the lack of context that often sounds jarring to me. When I’m reading an indepth essay on literary elements, I expect to be sent to my dictionary more than once. Not the same with regular, banal conversation. I still don’t get why it irks me so, but it’s definitely high on my list if per peeves.

      Who will disqualify you from the club? Let them try, we’re waiting with verbal machetes sharpened.

      A friend, who is one of the most brilliant lit. fiction writers I know, recently admitted ignorance of someone I consider one of the most popular contemporary authors. This friend writes in places I can only dream of. I remember reading about Clarice Lispector and how they said her work was influenced by great writers she’d never heard of. Some people need to read to know, others know instinctively.

      Timi, crotch-grabbing is gender neutral. It is known.

  2. Interestingly, Zadie Smith describes a college friend’s singing of a few lines from a Joni Mitchell song as a ‘strange strangulated falsetto, a kind of Kafkaesque piping’..

    You might be beginning to sound a wee bit like her, Zadie that is…

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