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Kafka's cockroach
Short story

April 15, 2002
The Iranian

This story is based on Franz Kafka's "Metamorphosis". The three parts correspond to the three sections of his story, and all the characters are taken from real people in Kafka's life, some episodes relating to his biography.


Prague, 1942
(Part II, Part III)

"I have come, sir, to reclaim my humanity," he said, hardly able to pronounce the words he was uttering. His voice whistled with a high-pitched squeak, which made him all the more unintelligible to the man behind the desk. "It hasn't been entirely my fault, and the years have changed me."

The official, who was wearing a black coat and striped pants, focused his beady, myopic eyes on the applicant through a pair of very thick glasses -- the lenses looked like the bottoms from two perfectly round-cut medicine bottles. He could easily zero in on the applicant and size him up without alarming him: His eyes were lost behind the thick lenses. He was a minor official in the Office of Rehabilitations and Corrections, one of those people who must bear the burden of obeying orders from many layers of superiors, but one who could give no orders except to those whom he was assigned to help.

"It is a most extraordinary request, Herr...Herr..." the official stammered while fumbling through a mountain of papers on the desk to find his application papers. "I can't find them, but I am duty bound to report this to my superiors."

"But, that's exactly what you said yesterday," the applicant objected. "You must allow me in before I change my mind. In my condition, timing is essential!"

"You didn't leave your application with me yesterday," the official complained nervously and obviously agitated by the applicant's audacity. "Your request is extraordinary, very extraordinary. Most people want to get out, not to get in, and that makes you a suspect in these terrible times."

"All I want is to be what I used to be earlier in my life. Is that an unreasonable request?"

"That was in 1912; that's what you claimed yesterday," the official argued vaguely. "We haven't even had the First World War and the humiliation in the hands of your people!"

"My people!" the applicant squeaked even with a higher pitch. "My people! I left them; you know that; I denied them with my metamorphosis. Why would you think I'm responsible for their acts?"

"Herr...," the official still could not remember the applicant's name. He was now panicking with the fear of being found out, found out by his superiors that he had let a dangerous enemy of the state escape without a name to identify him. He asked in a more solicitous voice, "What is your name?"

"I don't really remember, but I think it was Gregor."

"You don't remember, but you think it is Gregor! Gregor what?"

"I think it was Gregor Samsa; yes, definitely it was Gregor Samsa."

"You really don't remember your name, or is this a trick?" the official asked, his voice now becoming accusing and harsh.

"No tricks. You see: I was almost killed off until Max Brod saved me -- and a whole bunch of other characters -- from burning. How would you feel about yourself if your creator tried to destroy you like a mess of rubbish? All these years I have tried to forget about my past, and my name is a part of my past."

"Then, why do you want to reclaim it?"

"Because, I think I'm now better equipped," Gregor chuckled to himself without the official's taking any notice of the irony and continued, "at least, mentally, I would say, to deal with my humanity."

"Herr Samsa, you must be patient and fill out these application forms before we can proceed with your rehabilitation," the official said, pointing to a pile of forms on the far end of his desk. "We need names, addresses, solid testimonials on your behalf, and above all, tattoo numbers, yes, tattoo numbers. Meanwhile, I must report to my superiors that you willingly want to get in. Bring the application forms tomorrow, and I'm sure Herr Director will want to talk to you personally."

Gregor could hardly carry all the application forms to his den; it would be impossible to carry even one scrap of paper. Therefore, when the official left his desk to report to the clerk of the Deputy Assistant Director, Gregor decided to hide in the office, choosing the lower drawer of the official's desk, which had a lock hole, but no lock.

"Tonight, when they are all gone, I'll get out and try to make a sense of all these questions," Gregor told himself. "It'll be like the old times when I was a traveling salesman and had to file all those reports, sometimes exaggerating my own successes, until I said, 'To hell with it all' and changed my nature."

With that, he expertly swung on his hind legs, drastically depressing them down as far as they could go and, like a loaded coil, sprang high in the air, landing directly inside the drawer. He found a dark corner at the very back, set his soft belly on the smooth cover of a ledger file that said "Quotas To Auschwitz" and as he was mumbling "A man must have his sleep," he went into a deep, but terrifyingly restless stupor. This exertion had completely depleted his energies, and he was sure he could find no food in such a serious place.

When the official returned to his desk, he was surprised that the pile of forms still remained on his desk. "Wasting my time, the government's time," he mumbled with disappointment. "He would have been a good catch though, good on my record. It might have even deflected suspicions hovering over me, about my own Aryan blood!"

Gregor faintly heard a rustling in the big hall; he had already been awakened by the tower clock and the explosions with a tremendous hunger, the kind he had had some thirty years earlier when Grete first brought him scraps of food and left them on the floor inside an old newspaper. "I wish Grete were here," he mumbled with a lazy yawn. "At first, she was so proud to take care of me, even jealous to the exclusion of mother; I don't understand what happened to her."

In recent years Gregor was becoming increasingly nostalgic about the past, and now the thought of Grete, who only uttered harsh words at the end (even very few at that) , saddened him. He thought of the provincial barmaid and the cashier in that hat shop, whom he had pursued earnestly but too slowly, the only two women he had ever courted. Of course, Anna was another matter; one night, he had actually tried to sleep with her without success because his father never went to sleep and the servant girl made too much noise. He thought of all this and was overcome by a complete sense of loneliness, an alienation from life. "I wish someone were here," he said, and to his amazement he heard someone moving in the room towards the desk. His heart raced with fear, and his antennae twiddled nervously, his legs twitching, as if to dig into the Auschwitz file for safety.

The stranger came directly to the bottom drawer and opened it with a sudden move. "Come out, come out, Gregor," the stranger, who sounded very familiar, said with an urgent voice. "We don't have much time to waste!"

Gregor was alarmed even more; the last familiar voice he had heard before his death was that of Grete's, who was pleading with their father to kill him. "It must go!" she was shouting. "That's the only way out. You must get the idea out of your head that this is Gregor. We have this monster that pursues us. Look, father, it's beginning again!"

"How could she talk like that, my loving sister, whom I was going to send to the conservatory, and I would have announced it that Christmas, too," Gregor was telling himself loudly.

"But, you didn't, did you?" Gregor heard the stranger say. "You thought you were put upon by everyone... which you were!"

"Who are you," Gregor asked as he was cautiously crawling towards the light that faintly illuminated the front of the drawer.

"You asked for someone familiar," the stranger said, "and here I am, the most familiar person in your life."

As hard as Gregor thought, he could not place the voice. It was very familiar, yet from a far past, a very distant past. He moved to the edge of the drawer, leaving behind only faint, incomplete traces of the gunk that normally would be healthy, whole globs. Two days of hunger had drained the liquids from his body. The stranger was facing him, but the light from the tall window behind him only outlined the shape of his body, his face still remaining in the dark, unrecognizable. "Who are you?" Gregor asked again.

"I tried to create you, but you took over with your own will."

"Herr Kafka?"

"Yes! Now, you call me Herr Kafka!"

"You are Herr Franz Kafka? Are you not?"

"Yes! I am, but you used to call me Kafka, plain Kafka, no Herr in front of it."

"Come closer, please," Gregor said boldly, completely regaining his composure. "Let me see your face!"

The stranger moved to the left, and the search lights that intersected inside the hall lit his face. "Kafka! Kafka! My Dear Kafka; oh, my God!"

Gregor shouted with the excitement of a child. "It is you! What are you doing here?"

"You called me, remember. You wished to see a familiar face, and here I am."

"And, my other wishes?"

"They can't be: you have only wished earnestly twice."

"Well?"

"Once when you said 'the hell with it all' and wished to be transformed into a cockroach and now, when you wished for a familiar face?"

"What a confusion! You said you tried to create me; I don't understand how you started to create me, yet unfinished, and I become complete to wish to become a bug!"

"I started to create you and wrote just five pages -- remember those awful brown pieces of paper and the black ink, and, yes, that pen which could never hold enough ink for more than two short words? You became impatient and wanted to be finished, so you just took over and wrote yourself, discarding me arrogantly as if you didn't need my help for your creation."

Kafka moved to the window. There wasn't a single light to be seen in the entire city, save the light from the flacks before they became gray smoke against the black of the sky and, of course, the search lights.

"They are at it hard tonight. More planes than usual. Only God knows how many will be killed."

"Never mind that," Gregor shouted. "Let's talk about me. Help me to complete these application forms."

"Why would I do that? You wanted to be left alone so that you could run your own life: no father or mother, no Grete or Anna, nor those three bearded boarders, or the manager at the office, no one to claw at you and take away what you thought belonged to you by the right of your labors. You opted out and would not shoulder the responsibility of being neither a man nor a Jew. You crafted your own suffering last time; this time, it will be worse. I would have written you differently, but you don't like little sufferings!"

"That was in the past; besides, I don't want you to continue to create me -- just help me with those application forms."

"I wouldn't do it if I were you, Gregor Samsa," Kafka warned. "It doesn't pay for a cockroach to meddle in human affairs."

"I am not! I am going to reclaim my humanity and meddle with human affairs as a human being."

"I counsel against it. Completely! Completely! But, I can see you are still insisting to be separated and independent. So be it and write yourself, but remember: In helping you with these forms, I am also writing you."

"Only a very insignificant part of me, and I asked you for help!" With that, Kafka sat behind the official's desk, put the pen in the chipped glass ink-well, and began to complete the application forms.

"Feels like the old times," he said. Outside, the piercing sound of the diving planes, intermingled with the sound of the exploding bombs and the ack-ack guns, drowning completely the dying shouts of the people who were also killing. "I think they, too, have written themselves."

When very early next morning the official arrived at his desk, he was not surprised to find Gregor in his usual place. He had been petitioning for his rehabilitation for six weeks now; the ex-traveling salesman was unfazed by the slow movement of the official machinery. The official, however, ignored Gregor: Because of the intense air raid, he had spent the previous night with the long-dead and the dying in the catacombs of the Cathedral across from his office. He had barely slept with all the children crying and parents shouting and the officials ordering them around, and no food, of course. With his rumpled, untidy clothes and unshaven face, he looked much less threatening, as if the imminence of death had transformed the man more than just physically. He was sure to be reprimanded by his superiors for being so sloppy.

The official sank into his chair and stared at the mountain of papers he was to process, but there was no hurry because transports were in short supply, and the railroads were only used to move equipment. Besides, the facilities could not accommodate any more accelerated shipments. There was, however, at least one bright spot in the midst of all that gloom: Much to his relief, the official noticed Gregor's application forms miraculously completed and ready for processing. He could now proudly notify the Director that the Jew had willingly submitted his application for rehabilitation. He tried to look at Gregor through his thick glasses, but, as usual, he could only picture Herr Samsa in his mind. Yet, he would not admit to his impairment; he was a good civil servant who did not interfere with matters outside his realm of assigned duties.

The official did not read the application forms; he adjusted his black bow tie and in vain tried to brush away the wrinkles of his coat with his hands. "Wait here, Herr Samsa," he ordered Gregor, moving towards the Director's office with deliberate steps, and with respect. Gregor had expected at least a hearing, an appearance in front of the Director, but the official reappeared too soon. For the first time Gregor noticed a faint smile on the man's sallow face, the kind of smile that appears when, after a severe reprimand, one is mildly praised for a minor success. "Herr Samsa, you're very lucky today. His Excellency approved it without even reading your petition," said the official. "He thinks you're doing the right thing."

"What about appearing in front of the Tribunal?" asked Gregor. After so many years, he felt an urgent need for ceremonies, something that he had detested when he lived with his parents. He wanted to talk and defend himself against all accusations; he wanted to exercise his speech, his reason, his humanity.

"That shouldn't be necessary!" the official said absent mindedly.

"Why?"

"Because, you are not really important!"

Gregor did not take this as an insult. He was too determined to reclaim his humanity to bother with such trivial matters as insults and slights.

"Well!" he questioned again.

"Well, what?" the official answered.

"Do I reclaim, or what?"

"Come back tomorrow," the official dismissed him. "We'll see."

"I can't understand why you are rejecting me by these delays," Gregor insisted with an audacity that even surprised himself. "I shall not be here tomorrow; I might even change my mind. It is today or never!" This shocking and defiant persistence was more than the official was accustomed to, and the authority of Gregor's voice forced him to stand up and come to attention.

"Very well, Herr Samsa," he said with regret in his voice. "If you insist, I can arrange for your transportation."

"I'm ready!"

"Then, we must first send you to the clinic for examination and tattooing."

Happy to be on his way to reclamation, Gregor did not question the man any further. Even Gregor was surprised how agilely he could stand on his two feet. After all these years, he had not forgotten how to use only two legs for locomotion. Certainly he was wobbly at first, and it took him a while to gain his equilibrium, but the thought of the long strides he could now take -- like the old days -- made him giddy with anticipation. He could now run and cover distances as only a man can, and he fully intended to make a circle of his old traveling routes, to see the changes and speak to the few people he knew. Probably, Grete was still alive and married with children. He was an uncle and a relative, reconciled to his blood and kin. It would be nice to send Grete's daughter to the conservatory to learn to play the violin, and he will announce it at an opportune time.

"Hold your arm straight," the man in a striped robe ordered him. "Hold it straight. I'll be finished in a minute."

Gregor's arm was burning with the sting of a sharp needle that shot pigmentation underneath his skin. He was being tattooed, as the official had warned him, but he had not understood the process fully. He had not asked to be tattooed, and he hated all that pain and suffering. When he was a cockroach, he felt pain intensely but not often, not like when he was Herr Samsa. Now, this strange man with a sallow skin, looking more like a skeleton than a man, was tattooing him, inserting something foreign into his being. The tattooer was also tattooed on his arm, the same place Gregor was being tattooed.

"One-nine-four-two, you're finished," the tattooer announced, but Gregor remained on the stool, where he had been sitting ever since his reclamation. The man again said, "One-nine-four-two, you're finished! Go!" Since Gregor did not move, another man, who looked exactly like the tattooer with a number of his own, pushed him off the stool. "Didn't you hear the man, one-nine-four-two?" he said with authority.

"My name is Gregor Samsa!"

"Gregor Samsa died," the second man said with a grin.

"No! I came to reclaim my humanity; I am not a cockroach any more," he said and pointed at his hands, his legs, and his body: Every human part was in place, and he was Gregor Samsa.

"You're now one-nine-four-two, and remember that. Gregor Samsa is dead."

Before the light of the next morning and the grand air raid, one-nine-four-two was in Auschwitz, no place to run and exercise his legs and humanity. Everywhere he turned, he found multitudes of filthy, suffering people: men, women, children. Everywhere he looked, numbers overwhelmed him: people calling each other by numbers, eating according to numbers, and going to the showers as their numbers were called. He didn't want these people; he only wanted to see Grete. These people were all starved and suffering; they were not his kind of people, but he did not fail to notice that there was an amazing physiognomic similarity amongst them.

All of a sudden, he realized why he did not like the place: The air smelled of decay and ashes, burning and death. "I don't belong here," he told a young soldier with a rifle on his shoulder. "It is a mistake; I am rehabilitated. I am not like these people."

"Stand back one-nine-four-two," another uniformed officer shouted. "You're among your people: You are rehabilitated to them."

"These are not my people," one-nine-four-two shouted back. "I willingly came to reclaim my humanity. These people are not like me; they are more like insects, like bugs. They frighten me. Look at their terrible eyes; they are eyeing me as if I were a cockroach!"

One-nine-four-two felt a stroke followed by a burning sensation on his head, and he fell to his knees with a dull pain that shot from the roots of his hair to his spine and back again, as if he were caught between the electrode of a welding arch, and blood dripped steadily from the two wounds in his head. A small splinter of an ax handle that had landed on his head tunneled into his skull, its ends protruding like the two horns of the devil. Without surgical tools it would be impossible to dislodge the handle. He cried in agony, but no one came to his rescue. Instead, they rushed him to the "Smoking Room" and removed his clothes. He was completely naked except for a piece of red cloth that a woman was trying to wrap around his head. She looked amazingly like the charwoman who had once tormented him in his father's house. She had called him "cockroach" and teased him until he had turned on her. The very thought of the charwoman made one-nine-four-two cringe with disapproval, and he tried to push her away.

"Hush, baby," she cried. "Let me love you."

One-nine-four-two could not speak, but once again he tried to push her away. Still, the woman held him tightly in her arms and repeated, "Hush, baby. Let me love you."

One-nine-four-two mustered enough strength to sit up, freeing himself from the care of the mad woman. Others, who sat passively, just stared at him until an old man said, "Let her care for you; this morning they took the child she was holding to the showers."

But instead, one-nine-four-two stood up, and he knew that he had nothing in common with those people. He began shouting for help, and a guard with a whip in his hand appeared at the door. They all fell silent except one-nine-four-two, who insisted to see the Manager.

The mad woman followed one-nine-four-two around the room to console him, yet he was repulsed by her every time she tried to touch him. He finally found an empty corner away from the crowd and sat down on the floor, hiding his face in his dirty and blood stained hands. There was no way out, he thought, and he remembered Kafka's admonition against asking for his reclamation: He had gone through the process because he wanted to write himself. Slowly his eye lids closed, and he collapsed with exhaustion, his face marked by streaks of dried blood that was cracking into tiny designs of undefinable patterns.

"One-nine-four-two," he awoke and heard his number called out loudly.

Every one was looking at him, relieved that it was not their number and as if his presence in the Smoking Room -- the gateway to the showers -- was an affront to their destiny. "Where are you one-nine-four-two? Show yourself!"

He tried several times to stand but fell to his knees in a weak supplication; finally, he was up as the mad woman assisted him through the narrow walk that the crowd had parted to make for his passage. Slowly he moved, his eyes painfully cast to the ceiling to escape the stares of the people, and he knew that they were happy he was the one to be called. At the door, beyond which no one passed to return, his eyes caught the glimmer in the eyes of the mad woman, and he knew that she was not mad. Uncontrollably, a smile blossomed on his face, his eyes still remaining uncommitted. "Ottla!" he whispered.

In the office he stood with a stoop on his back in front of a corpulent officer who was breaking walnuts in his bare fist. "You don't belong here," he said. "Only people properly documented can take shower."

"I have been trying to tell you that," Gregor answered. "I don't belong with these people!"

"Your tattoo must be wiped with acid."

"No! I want the tattoo; just send me where I belong. These people are not my people."

"But, you have not signed your application forms," the officer complained.

"I couldn't," Gregor said.

"Why not... why... not?" barked the officer.

"Because, Kafka had to fill them out for me," Gregor replied.

"That is illegal! It is against the law for someone else to prepare your application: You must write your own. Is Kafka one of your people? Does he have a number?"

"I think he is, but I never knew about his number."

"You must turn him in on both accounts. You can't just go on breaking the law and getting away with it! We have a machinery to deal with that."

"I don't know where he is."

"We'll see to that later. But now, the task at hand. You have tricked us, Gregor Samsa, going through the rehabilitation without signing the papers. We can't send you to the showers without proper authorization by you; your rehabilitation is not official until you sign the documents." And, the officer gave him a pen and motioned to the papers to be signed.

"I did not mean to trick you, your excellency," Gregor said earnestly. "It was just an oversight. I'll sign them gladly."

A voice inside his head said, "Don't sign!"

"Hush, Kafka! I'm writing now. Stay out of it!" he muttered.

The people around the officer's desk laughed loudly, and the corpulent officer tapped his forehead with his index finger to indicate Gregor's insanity. Gregor took the pen to sign the documents, but the palsy in his hand would not permit any legible inscription. He finally wrote his numbers on the paper, barely making a tracing; he returned the pen to its caddie and took a faltering step backward.

"This is another trick!" the corpulent officer roared with anger. "This is another trick, a racial trait."

"But I signed the paper!" Gregor protested. "You signed it one-nine-four-two; you are not yet officially one-nine-four-two until you sign. Sign your name."

"Sign my name?" he mumbled as he took a step forward to sign, thinking the reclamation was not probably worth it at all. "Yes, I will sign my name."

He took the pen in his hand, but the severe palsy would not permit him to write the two names "Gregor Samsa." No, it couldn't be done that day at all; he needed rest and food; he needed to crawl into his shell and think the whole thing over. He had nothing in common with these people nor the ones with tattoos on their arms; he was separated from all and had suffered in their hands, and no amount of cajoling or threat could stop the shake in his hand: He could not inscribe his names.

"I see! You refuse to cooperate!" bellowed the corpulent officer, but he was not angry; he was just following orders, he confessed. "You must return to the clinic and have your tattoo removed."

In the clinic, a gaunt, short man in striped gown pulled five drops of chloric acid from a bottle and dropped them on Gregor's arm, using a glass rod to spread the liquid evenly. It burned through his flesh, and he could smell the sting of the acid and his burning skin. "It's harder to take it off than to put it on," he thought, but for all that pain he remained silent, as his soft belly rubbed on the dirty floor of the tattooing room.

"Look at him run," the man with the acid shouted like a delighted child.

"Catch that cockroach!"

"Kaf... ka! Kaf... ka! Is that you?" Gregor whispered. "Next time! Never again will I be a victim, only on the side of the winner, only on the side of the winner!" And, he disappeared into a crack on the wooden floor, his hard shell crunching painfully as he pushed himself through the narrow slit.

"Cockroaches never die; they live forever!" >>> Go to part II

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Comment for the writer Reza Ordoubadian


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