Hoping Against Hope

Alberto Manguel

Yesterday morning, I woke up from troubled dreams and found myself thinking about Kafka and Gregor Samsa’s metamorphosis. A question was ringing in my head: why does Gregor’s metamorphosis occur? Why is it that Gregor wakes up one morning from troubled dreams and finds himself transformed into a giant insect?

“We read to ask questions,” Kafka wrote to a friend. Indeed. Reading Kafka, we sense that these elicited questions are always just beyond our understanding, promising an answer but not now, perhaps next time. Something in his writing—something unfinished, carefully constructed, left open to the elements—allows us approximations, intuitions and half-dreams but never total comprehension. His are texts precise and severe, each page obtained “through anger,” he says, “blow after blow.” Kafka offers us absolute uncertainties. His style is summed up in his description of tree trunks in the snow. “In appearance they lie smoothly and a little push should be enough to send them rolling. No, it can’t be done, for they are firmly wedded to the ground. But see, even that is only an appearance.”

Reading Kafka allows us to discern in his work a kind of theological intuition, a slow and gradual ascent toward a terrible god that offers us at the same time happiness and the impossibility of enjoying it. For Kafka, the Garden of Eden still exists, even though we no longer inhabit it. Like the law at whose doors waits the protagonist of the fable told in The Trial, the inaccessible Eden remains open for us until the moment of our death. Vladimir Nabokov, subtle reader of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, recognized in the fantastic tale a description of our daily fate. “The insect into which Gregor is transformed,” Nabokov told his students at the university, “is a type of cockroach that has wings below its shell. And if Gregor found these wings, he would have been able to spread them and fly out of his prison.” And Nabokov added: “Like Gregor, some Joes and Janes are not aware that they have wings under their shells, and can fly.”

By means of this double game of salvation and guilt all Kafka’s work is built. His human and animal heroes, who, like Gregor Samsa, pass from one condition to the other, are guilty without guilt, guilty simply because they exist. No one knows for what offence Josef K. in The Trial is condemned, nor for what fault K. will never reach the Castle. The crime committed by the prisoner in The Penal Colony cannot be known, not even by the prisoner himself, except by means of the needle that engraves, with infinite convolutions, the ineffable sin on his living flesh. Guilty without knowledge of their crime, saved but without means of salvation, we human beings are for Kafka modern incarnations of Odysseus, whose forced return is constantly impeded by a capricious and persistent god. Kafka’s answer to Max Brod, who, fed up with so much apparent pessimism, had exclaimed, “But if you say that, there’s no hope!” is well-known. “Oh no,” Kafka said with a smile. “There is hope, but not for us.” Under such always alien hope we spend our laborious days and agonizing nights.

A year before his death, in the German spa of Müritz, Kafka met his sister Elli and her three small children. One of the children tripped and fell. The others were about to burst out laughing when Kafka, to prevent the child from feeling humiliated for his clumsiness, said to him in an admiring tone: “How well you performed that fall! And how admirably you stood up!” We can suppose that throughout his life, fall after fall, knowing all the while that he was hoping in vain, Kafka hoped that someone would speak to him these few words.

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Alberto Manguel

Alberto Manguel is the award-winning author of hundreds of works, most recently (in English) Fabulous Monsters, Packing My Library: An Elegy and Ten Digressions, Curiosity and All Men Are Liars. He lives in New York. Read more of his work at


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