Reading Kafka in the Spring in Prague

Alice Whittenburg in 3:AM Magazine:

Construction projects abounded in Prague’s historic center during the Spring of 2018. Many picturesque buildings were hidden behind scaffolding, and the roar of heavy equipment drowned out church bells. One morning in May, I sat in a cafe on Vodičkova Street, just a few meters from Wenceslas Square. A small group of workmen, who had removed the cobblestones from the sidewalk near the café’s entrance and had already done some serious digging, stood waist-deep in a pit and used their pickaxes and shovels to engage with the city’s infrastructure. It seemed that every few meters throughout the tourist epicenter small groups of workers could be seen digging up or filling in such pits, despite the fact that hundreds of tourists were existing nearby. Though the workers outside the cafe had mastered the art of doing manual labor with a certain economy of motion, they seemed to swelter in the unseasonable heat. I drank my cappuccino, soon engrossed in a book, then lost track of the construction work going on just outside the door.

I had begun to re-read The Castle soon after I arrived in Prague. What struck me most during this reading was how much the novel focuses on the treatment and experiences of working people. In critical papers about the book there are frequent references to the law and the legal process, and Max Brod saw the titular castle as representing “divine guidance” [1]. But because this is Kafka we are talking about, a writer who is known for giving us “so many pointers to an unknown meaning,” [2] there is also the castle as a source of power and privilege. Sometimes this power and privilege is invested in K. himself or in an absurd figure like Klamm (who has, as Olga tells K., “… one appearance when he comes into the village and another on leaving it; after having his beer he looks different from when he’s talking to people, and – what is incomprehensible after all that – he’s almost another person up in the Castle.” [3]). Commonly, manual and menial workers have little power and privilege, but in this novel having any sort of job to do puts the worker at a serious disadvantage.

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