“The Rescue Will Begin in Its Own Time”
by Franz Kafka
translated from the German by Michael Hofmann
from the June 29, 2020 issue of The New Yorker
A few months ago (or a year or two ago, I cannot tell the difference any more), New Directions, one of my favorite publishers, announced they were releasing The Lost Writings, a collection of Kafka’s work that had never been translated into English. While they discovered subsequently that a few were previously translated and published (as Barbara Epler discusses in her interview with Deborah Treisman), and while all of the writings have been available in German for some time and are, therefore, not really lost (something else Epler touches on in her interview), it’s still a very exciting thing. Here we get a little preview!
“The Rescue Will Begin in Its Own Time” is actually four short pieces (very short — all four can be read in a few minutes). Often short fragments such as these do little for me. They are over quickly, and I’m often not the most adept at feeling what they’re about. But I loved these little existential fables.
The first recounts a few legends about Prometheus, the Titan who gave mankind fire and who was consequently cursed to be shackled to a rock and eternally picked at by eagles. This one ends with a mysterious sentence I’d love to hear thoughts on. But before that final sentence we get the four legends about Prometheus, which eventually lead to a thought that even punishment and eternal misery lose their meaning.
The second and third are the most comical. In one, a father cannot cut a loaf of ordinary bread with an ordinary knife.
A large loaf of bread lay on the table. Father came in with a knife to cut it in half. But even though the knife was big and sharp, and the bread neither too soft nor too hard, the knife could not cut into it. We children looked up at Father in surprise. He said, “Why should you be surprised? Isn’t it more surprising if something succeeds than if it fails? Go to bed, perhaps I’ll manage it later.”
The image is fantastic, the sentiment comically pessimistic.
This carries over into the third story, the longest, in which a farmer asks a passer-by to help him with some domestic troubles.
Perhaps I could help — he’d had a falling out with his wife, and their argument was wrecking his life. He also had some simple-minded children who hadn’t turned out well; they just stood around or got up to mischief.
This story goes through several twists and turns as the passer-by considers the request and what he’ll need in order to accomplish it and, most importantly, be compensated for his troubles.
The fourth is short, again, and darker, as it concerns a couple of men in prison, one who is deluded into thinking his rescue is on its way and another — the narrator — who has no reason to doubt this but who is nevertheless concerned about what his cellmate’s impending rescue means for his cellmate at the present time. There’s a lot to unpack in all of these, but this is the one I’m most interested in working out right now as I think there’s a lot to be discovered in its few lines.
This was a very refreshing read, I should say. I’ve been reading a lot of really good books lately, but this still came over me like a refreshing breeze. I love this kind of stuff, and I am thrilled we still get quite a lot of work from other writers who are similarly skilled in the absurd and making it profound — I’m thinking of César Aira as a current author, but also of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky (new collection coming soon!!) and Robert Walser (from whom we will also be getting more, it appears).
The skill of the translators is also important to note. They manage to bring this to English in a way that is thrilling and immediate. Michael Hofmann has always been one of my favorite translators, and these reaffirm his skill.
I hope you’ll get a chance to read these and to comment below. I’m very interested in your thoughts and insights!