Kafka’s Son

  • Review
By – February 1, 2016

From the award-win­ning author of The Yemenite Girl comes an enig­mat­ic nov­el about iden­ti­ty and per­son­al rein­ven­tion. Kafka’s Son is both a mov­ing trib­ute to Franz Kaf­ka and a sto­ry of fate and mir­a­cles, gath­er­ing events that span near­ly a cen­tu­ry and that are marked by small won­ders and grand deceptions.

The sto­ry is nar­rat­ed by Amschl — Curt, to those not call­ing him to the bima—a doc­u­men­tary film­mak­er with a life­long appre­ci­a­tion for the work of Franz Kaf­ka. When he men­tions his affec­tion for Kaf­ka to Jiri, a stranger-cum-guardian whom he encoun­ters in a famous New York syn­a­gogue, Jiri, who grew up in Prague around all things Kaf­ka, nudges him to go there.

Amschl, pro­pelled both by impulse and a greater sense of mean­ing, fol­lows Jiri’s direc­tions and winds up in Czecho­slo­va­kia, where he at first ambles about gath­er­ing con­tacts. He meets the care­tak­er of the famous shul where the golem is said to sleep, a man with a golem’s face, and a fel­low who claims to be Kafka’s son. Most impor­tant­ly, he meets Mr. Klein, a promi­nent fig­ure from Jiri’s past. Work fades into won­der as he begins to map a Kaf­ka time­line that sug­gests an alter­nate his­to­ry: what if Kaf­ka didn’t die sick and alone as his­to­ri­ans sug­gest? What if he’d had a fam­i­ly? What if he’d man­aged to survive?

Leviant weaves Jew­ish folk­lore into his tale in a dark­ly love­ly man­ner: the shem laced beneath tongues and ani­mat­ing many, blood­lines draw­ing peo­ple back togeth­er after decades-long absences, lions above arks roar­ing to life to pro­tect those per­ceived as vul­ner­a­ble. Amschl strug­gles to rec­on­cile his var­i­ous reac­tions to Kafka’s Prague, alter­nat­ing between creduli­ty and prag­ma­tism, cyn­i­cism and hope. He is moti­vat­ed by a desire to pre­serve what he learns for pos­ter­i­ty, though his inabil­i­ty to rest with won­der threat­ens to unrav­el the frag­ile world into which he’s been invited.

Nar­ra­tive twists and the inter­sec­tion of dis­parate ele­ments — lit­er­ary his­to­ry with mys­ti­cism, the Jew­ish past with fam­i­ly futures — are ren­dered with skill and intel­li­gence. Kafka’s Son is a nov­el of uncom­mon beau­ty, both sharp in its humor and thick with eth­i­cal conun­drum. Already a hit abroad, its intro­duc­tion into Amer­i­can lit­er­ary cir­cles deserves to make waves.

Relat­ed Content:

Michelle Anne Schin­gler has degrees from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Geor­gia and Har­vard Divin­i­ty School. By day, she works in a pub­lic library. She also free­lances for venues includ­ing Book Riot and Fore­Word Reviews.

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