23 Apr 2011

Amerikan Business Machines: The Variational Desk Mechanics in Kafka's Amerika/Missing

Amerikan Business Machines:
The Variational Desk Mechanics in Kafka's Amerika/Missing

The following is quotation from
the Jeff Nowak translation of Kafka's Missing (a.k.a Amerika)

An American writing desk sat in his room, of the best sort, like his father had wanted for years and had tried to buy at all different kinds of auctions for a cheap and reasonable price, without ever having succeeded, on account of his small income. Of course, this desk was not to be compared to those allegedly American desks that hang around at European auctions. It had, for example, a hundred compartments of varying sizes in its top part, and the President of the Union himself would have been able to find a fitting place for each of his files, but there was also a regulator on the side, and you could, with a turning of the crank, achieve a variety of rearrangements and new fittings suited to your pleasures and demands. Thin partitions on the side sank lazily and formed a new floor picking itself up or a ceiling rising with new compartments; even after one turning, the top part had a completely changed display, and everything moved according to how you turned the crank, either slowly or unreasonably fast. It was the newest of inventions, but it reminded Karl vividly of the nativity play back home, shown to astonished children at the Christmas Fair, and Karl had also stood there in front of it, packed into his winter clothes, and without interruption had compared the turning of the crank, which an old man guided along, to the effects on the nativity play: the faltering procession of the three holy kings, the radiance of the star and the hesitant life in the holy stable. And always, it seemed that his mother standing behind him wasn’t following the events nearly enough, he pulled her to himself until he touched her with his back and pointed out to her with loud shouting all the hidden aspects, perhaps a rabbit that alternately stood up from the grass like a tiny man and then made at a run, until his mother covered his mouth and, most likely, fell into her earlier carelessness. Admittedly, the desk hadn’t been made to remind him of such things, but in the history of inventions a similarly vague connection probably existed as it did in Karl’s memory. The uncle, as opposed to Karl, was not happy with the desk, he had even wanted to buy an ordinary desk for Karl, and such desks were all provided with the same new fittings, which had the advantage that they could be attached to older desks without bringing in a huge cost. After all, his uncle did not refrain from advising Karl to, if possible, not use the regulator; to reinforce the effectiveness of this advice, his uncle claimed that the machinery was very touchy, easy to ruin and very costly to restore. It wasn’t difficult to see that these comments were just excuses, although on the other hand you had to say that the regulator was very easy to lock in place and yet his uncle had never done so.

Franz Kafka. Missing / Amerika. Translated by Jeff Nowak. ©Jeff Nowak, revision © Mauro Nervi.

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