April 15, 2002
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.
"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
"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
"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'Ç 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."
"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
"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
"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."
"Once when you said 'the hell with it all'Ç 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
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
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
"That shouldn't be necessary!" the official said absent mindedly.
"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."
"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
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
"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!"
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
"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