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You know that feeling you get right after you’ve been slapped in the face?
Before the message that you’ve been hit even reaches your brain, before the stinging pain becomes real, it’s the shock of the impact that gets your attention. Disorientation and confusion take over. Then alarm, fear, sadness and anger before reality sets in.
This is what happened the first time I read Franz Kafka’s one page story,“An Imperial Message.”
The story, also known as “A Message From the Emperor,” tells of an Emperor, the most important guy in the land, who has sent you, the reader, the least important, most contemptible shittiest subject in the land,I’m paraphrasing here, a vitally important message from his deathbed.
He has sent this message via a fearless, tireless, messenger who fights his way through crowds, courtyards, staircases, etc inorder to get the message to you.
But there are so many obstacles in his way that the messenger will never make it in a million years.
I’m about to spoil the ending so you can either stop reading this, or you can read Kafka’s story here before continuing:http://home.nwciowa.edu/firth/kafka.htm
When I first read this story, two important things were going on in my life. I had just given birth to my first son and as a result I had reconnected with my father after several years of estrangement.
The latter seemed like the right thing to do until I remembered how my father, who had once been the Emperor in my life, made me feel…
These two events were causing an internal conflict which resembled the Middle East.
We’d been back in touch for a year but only by phone, and already I degressed to being the angry, toxic, self loathing daughter, while having trouble embracing my new role as an empowered nurturing euphoric mother. The two opposing roles seemed incompatible mostly because the new mother in me was being bulldozed by the much more experienced aggressive daughter in me.
As the daughter I was stuck, desperate for my father’s approval, as though it were necessary in order to progress to the role of mother. And though it was obvious to my therapist, the daughter in me was unable to accept that perhaps my father was incapable of saying the things I needed to hear. Both daughter and mother were in deep denial.
As is often the case with me, my brain took the steering wheel and I became obsessed with An Imperial Message. While my son slept, I read this story hundreds, if not thousands of times. I picked apart every sentence as if it were Torah. I had the story laminated and carried it around with me as I used to carry my Tehillim in my religious days. I couldn’t explain my sudden obsession with this story but I studied every available translation as I had once studied Rashi. I even used dictionaries to come up with my own translation, knowing how much author and translator’s intentions can differ.
But the core message was always the same.
The message ain’t coming you twit! I’m paraphrasing.
But it was the last line that really delivered Kafka’s stinging slap:
Like a schmuck you’re still waiting. Paraphrasing.
It was one of the most difficult decisions I’d ever face but a few months later, I took asecond hiatus from speaking with my father, this time for more than a decade.
Some years later, when estrangement from my father was the new normal, I felt compelled to illustrate every sentence of Kafka’s story. The drawings were to be exhibited in London at a Kafka festival and as I assembled them to be shipped, I found it ironic that I had received The Message for which I’d waited so long, and that it had reached me loud and clear. Though it may not have come from the Emperor as I’d hoped it would, it had, in fact, come from a dead man.
Orli Auslander grew up in London and worked as a milliner and radio DJ in New York City before devoting herself full-time to creating art. Her work has been shown in the US England and Spain and was recently featured on the Showtime series Happyish. She is married to the author Shalom Auslander and lives with her family in upstate New York.