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Kafka's cockroach
Part II

April 16, 2002
The Iranian

1972, Norfolk
(
Part I, Part III)

He stowed away on a Liberian cargo ship and regretted it; the food was most unfamiliar: roots and vegetables, very little cheese or substances he preferred by nature. The voyage from Hamburg to Norfolk took fifteen full days, and he traveled in the bowels of the ship, hiding from the crew, dodging detection or interception, determined to write himself in America.

The day his tattoo was wiped off Kafka warned him, "America is not just a fairy land; it is a fairy land full of bad fairies."

"But, the possibilities are there," Gregor objected.

"I am told the streets in America are not paved with gold; they are awash with tears and blood."

"This is the same old story you had planned to tell in your novel; you are completely unbelievable!"

"That's correct! I didn't complete the book though, and I was right to leave it unfinished."

"But, it got published, anyhow; and Max has told me all about your plans, all about that happy ending, that Oklahoma Open Air Theater scene."

"That Max Brod is unreliable: He didn't burn the stories I had asked him to destroy," Kafka said and became quite agitated. "Why am I talking to a cockroach? I didn't write you!"

"You started me, true, but if you really wanted to burn your stories, if you really didn't want your stories to be read, you should have destroyed them before you died."

"I was too busy dying," Kafka dismissed the idea. "Most of the time I was in a sanitarium."

"But, no! Not Kafka!" Gregor continued, ignoring Kafka's self-defense. "You deputized poor Max to do it for you! As a matter of fact, you wanted all your stories to be published while you demurred and modestly protested their publication, the same kind of game you played with your women! You often lie to yourself, and, if I might say so, to most of your women; you know that, don't you?"

This time, Kafka ignored Gregor's insults and said, "At any rate; I didn't think America was all that romantic Indian and the-noble-savage stuff!"

"You were going to tell the world that only in a fairy land miracles happen, and America was the last of the fairy lands! Max says you were actually going to let your hero recover, as though through a paradisiac magic, his vocation, freedom, and integrity, even his parents and his homeland: how untypical of you, Joseph K.! I like it, though. I'll try this fairyland; I think I can write me with less suffering in America."

"I didn't finish the book, and Max is exaggerating. I would have shown how the New World is a continent of terrifying opportunities and loneliness, a land of every imaginable corruption and every possible corruptible and corrupt element."

"Then, why didn't you? Why didn't you say what you were thinking?"

"Don't be absurd and accuse me of duplicity. The fact that I didn't finish the book should tell you something. If I had finished it, I would have followed the fairy-tale line, but I knew that was not the truth; so, I didn't finish the book, and against my wishes, Kurt Wolff published the unversed, incomplete novel."

"Kafka, I like your fairy tale," Gregor said as he was disappearing into the cracks of the wall to stay away from Kafka for as long as possible. "Now, I start to prepare myself for the journey."

But, that was thirty years earlier; 1972 was in a different world, a changed geography, a world with reappraised ethical standards. "Why don't you go to Israel?" Kafka asked.

"For the same reason you didn't go to Palestine," answered Gregor.

"Oh! I was tempted; I even made serious plans, but it was too great a÷, well, commitment÷"

"And, collective actions!" Gregor scoffed.

"Like you, I am unsure of my origins. We both reject them, yet we're unbearably attracted to them."

"Whatever!" Gregor said with determination. "I'm on my way to America to reclaim my humanity and write the ending to your America ."

Kafka remained silent. "I owe you that much," Gregor continued. "I owe it to you; after all, you started me!"

"You took over, though," Gregor heard Kafka say from far away. "You presumed you could write you better!"

Gregor was thinking of reconciliation; he thought that finishing Kafka's book would be his triumph to resolve the problem of "guilt and punishment, the rebellion of the sons, the victory of the fathers, and their power to punish transgression by exile and the ultimate loneliness of death." He also knew this was an act of defiance against his own creator; like the prodigal son in the back of America, he would write himself and prove to Kafka his own fatherhood, start a new life without any connections to the past.

"America is in a turmoil; you can't find yourself there," Kafka said as Gregor was disappearing. "Wait for another decade, another time." But Gregor fast disappeared to escape Kafka's harangue, as he called it, and did not hear him; not that it would have made any difference: For better or worse, Gregor was writing himself, independent from Kafka.

The ship docked late at night, but few went on shore. The next day, customs inspectors would examine the landing manifesto and officially admit the ship to the United States; Gregor, however, was in a hurry, and he left with the personal effects of the pilot, arriving at Sam's tavern across from the U. S. Naval shipyards, empty of their vessels because they were fighting in Viet Nam. There was food aplenty in the tavern, a good omen about this land of abundance and individual identity. "Tomorrow! Tomorrow, I will talk to the authorities," Gregor told himself as he was nibbling at the scraps of food on the floor; then, he laid his soft belly on a smooth piece of shelving paper in the pantry and went to a peaceful sleep, dreaming of Anna.

"Next," Gregor heard the invisible man behind the cage shout. "Passport, Please?" He had been standing in line for hours for this moment.

"I have come, sir, to reclaim my humanity," Gregor 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. "It hasn't been entirely my fault; suffering and the years have changed me."

The official, who was wearing a blue-gray uniform with a name tag and a plastic number-plate, looked down and saw who he was and was not repulsed. A seasoned immigration officer, Otto Brod had seen varieties enter the United States through the gateways that only he could open.

He repeated, "Passport, please!"

"Herr Brod," Gregor addressed the official directly, "Ich wurde in Prag begonnen . . ich hatten meinen Anfang in÷"

But the official did not permit him to continue; with an impatiently icy voice he said, "I don't speak German: Passport, please!"

Gregor regretted having returned to the ship to go through the immigration formalities. He could have taken off for Oklahoma to finish Kafka's book and write himself; yet, he was obliged to have his humanity restored first, so that he could experience suffering as a man and complete the novel out of Kafka's perspective. "Joseph K., this one is for you!" Gregor said loudly, an inappropriate answer to Otto Brod's inquiry.

However, that moment Gregor was standing in front of another official of a different kind, who wanted documentation and the proof of his being, as if without a passport he did not exist. "I am the proof of myself; I am here to declare that I am, not to argue if I am; I have come to demand what is rightfully mine."

He was definitely a special case, a case that could not be handled easily. The line behind Gregor was getting impatiently longer, and Otto Brod, an experienced official, knew better than to accept this responsibility personally; so, he rang a bell to call the security guard. "You cannot," he said sternly, "enter The United States without a passport. We have strong laws against illegal aliens."

That cancerously obscene word again, that word "alien" again, to tell him he did not belong, to tell him Gregor did not exist because he did not have a passport prepared for him by someone else, and soon he found himself facing another uniformed interrogator, who was obviously bored with his job. "What is your name?" he asked without looking at Gregor.

"I think it was Gregor Samsa," he answered.

"Do you have any accomplices? How much did you pay them? In dollars or koruna?" the official asked without waiting for an answer.

"Only Kafka, whom I have not seen in thirty years."

"Fine! One accomplice; is he an illegal alien, too?"

"I don't think so. I doubt if he ever came to America."

"We'll get to that later. Why did you want to enter The United States illegally? Are you a communist? Do you have syphilis? Other venereal diseases? Are you a malcontent? Will you incite riots? Have you committed adultery during the past six months? Have you ever had, do you now have, or will you ever have tuberculosis?" The uniformed official asked, but before Gregor could answer, he put a "no" in front of each question without glancing at Gregor.

"I'm a socialist, but not a communist, and I told you: I have come to reclaim my humanity."

"Who doesn't? But one thing at a time, Sir: first, the problem of your entry. Do you have a social security card and a financial sponsor?"

"I don't think so?"

"Why do you continue saying ŽI don't think so'? You either have it or you don't! Which is it?"

"No!"

"Well, you cannot enter unless you have applied for a visa and you have two clear chest x-rays taken three days apart, or your certified affidavit in lieu of the x-rays?"
Gregor found entering America harder than the German rehabilitation process. "How can I apply for a visa?" he asked.

"You can't because you are already here; you are, in a special way, a criminal; you have broken our laws, and laws are for your own protection. You should admit your guilt."

"You keep telling me I have tried to enter America illegally. That is absurd. I am here, in front of you, asking for rehabilitation. Would I voluntarily come to you if I were planning to trick you? Just tell me how to get a visa?"

"You must go back and apply for a visa in Prague, if that's really where you are from!"

"I can't go back in time. I must start from the present; in my condition, I might change my mind for another thirty years. Tell me! How long will it take to get a visa?"
The officer checked a ledger file that said "Quotas to America" on its blue cover, it seemed to Gregor, for a long time, trying to find a legal way for Gregor to enter the United States, but the reality of the numbers was there, and the news not promising at all; he shook his head and said,

"The quotas for Czechoslavakia are closed until 1978 -- six years!"

"Six years," Gregor repeated the words absent mindedly. "Six months?" This news was discouraging beyond endurance, and Gregor thought Kafka was quite right about this fairy land.

"Are you a political refugee?" The officer asked with a knowing smile. "Will your life be in danger if you are deported?"

"You might call me that, yes," Gregor answered with a renewed hope.

"You could enter The United States if you are a political refugee and if you serve in one of the military branches."

Gregor Samsa was more than willing to serve in one of the military branches to complete his plans that had been under formulation for thirty years. "Yes! That will do nicely. I was a Second Lieutenant in the Imperial Army."

Unobserved, Gregor slipped inside the room to find himself; with a measured and monotonous cadence that only a sergeant can lecture, the uniformed officer was telling the inductees, who were waiting to be assigned a number, "Marines are tough. That is the reason our dog-tags are etched on our flesh. We belong to the United States of America, and we're tough, and we only win. We are marine issue, marine tools, and our destructive power is awesome and our pride÷do you hear me?"

"Yes, sergeant."

"We do not wear tin dog-tags because we are men and because our numbers are tattooed on our arms. Do you hear me?"

"Yes, sergeant."

And that strange man with a sallow skin, looking more like a skeleton than a man, was once again inserting something extraneous to his being. The tattooer also was tattooed. Numbers had been inserted in the man's arm, the same place Gregor was being tattooed. He felt the sting of an electronic needle shooting a transparent plastic ribbon, with blue numbers, underneath his skin, and the vague memories of another tattooer haunted his vision. He asked himself, would they also be able to wipe his new tattoo with acid drops?

"Every time I transform, it is at a cost, the cost of the yoke of numbers designed by someone else," Gregor mumbled. A cockroach is indistinguishable from any other cockroach, but as a human being, he had to be quite distinct from other human beings, a requirement for him to gain his humanity, a number unique to him. Even his name could belong to someone else, but not his number, and every time he lost his distinctness, he also lost his humanity. But he was now one-nine-four-two-dash-one-nine-seven-two, a lieutenant in Phong Wei, the leader of fifteen seasoned marines who raided the frontier villages and harassed the commies. Lieutenant Gregor Samsa was on the side of the winners, a model soldier who volunteered for any job and was hated by his men, who considered him dangerously crazy, calling him "Lieutenant Freak" behind his back, until on the morning of Friday the thirtieth, two M.P.'s arrived at his tent and arrested him.

Gregor was afraid; he was afraid of dying, but even more, he was afraid of not dying. He had intended to realize himself by joining the winners, and here he was, alone in the dug-out in the moon blanched forest, miles away from any help. The smell of rotting vegetation in the swamp below his position intermingled with the pungent smell of decaying human flesh, and all around him the enemy shells exploded with an ear shattering noise, lighting the sky like a holiday fire-works; the Cong chanted in a language Gregor could not understand. They were very different from him, and that was the scary part.

Gregor clutched his M-14 rifle without firing: He hated the sound of bullets leaving his rifle and then the sound of their explosion inside their targets. May-lay was a massacre, and he would have nothing to do with it. "It was all a mistake," he murmured involuntarily.

"Yes, it was," a voice beyond the cluster of the trees that separated him from the Cong, agreed.

"Who goes there!?" Gregor asked with a hushed voiced that could not be heard beyond his own ears. "Who goes there?"

"It is me," the voiced said loudly. "Have you forgotten me so soon?"

"Oh! Thank you; is that you, Kafka?"

"Whom did you expect? Of course, it is me, but it seems you call only when you mess up your life."

"I am scared to death!"

"Only human beings die; never a cockroach. You know that!"

"That's what I'm afraid of," Gregor replied. "Come closer; I can't see your face."

"No! This time I will stay where I am; you want your own will to carry you through."

"Kafka, don't play with me!" Gregor shouted, but he should not have because the enemy discovered its target, and a barrage of bullets hit the huge tree behind him, his wall of protection. The splinters from the exploding tree showered Gregor's flesh with thousands of needle-sharp, miniature arrows, and he cursed in German, "Schiest÷!"

Gregor waited for a moment until he could talk again; Kafka had fallen silent. "Are you still there," he asked quietly. "Are you with me?"

"Yes," Kafka replied with a broad smile as the exploding shells lit the horizon, allowing Gregor to see Kafka's face. "Thanks to me, you will surely get a Purple Heart out of these splinters." Kafka was now sitting by him on a mound of dirt in direct line of the bullets whizzing through to find their targets.

Gregor was bleeding all over his body. "Help, Kafka," he pled, "help, please!"

"You have done it this time. Why don't you die and get done with this madness. Write yourself out of existence. I have a pen here!"

"I can't; you tried it several times yourself. You couldn't do it. How could you ask me to do it?"

"Well, that is how I would have written you, but you think you can write you better than I can -- fine!"

"How can you lecture me at a time like this! Do something!"

"I warned you about America; you chose to rehabilitate yourself; you do something!" Kafka came closer and examined Gregor's rifle. "I see! You haven't fired a single shot!"

"I couldn't. I haven't fired a single shot at anyone since I was shipped to Nam."

"But, you are famous for your bravery! You're called Lieutenant Freak. Is that another easy way out?"

"I have fired my rifle, all right. I just can't fire it to kill. I have not come to kill, but to redeem myself."

"Let me give you a good piece of advice÷"

"No -- just get me out of here."

"I have no authority to interfere with your destiny. You have opted me out of your story; write it or stop it."

"Just get me out of here and let me continue my story by myself."

"I told you in Auschwitz: You can't have it both ways. Either you write you, for better or for worse -- from the looks of it, for worse -- or you let me rewrite you completely, and all this suffering will disappear. We'll start from 1912, page five."

"You are funny! And I'm scared to death, but I can't oblige you. I will survive."

Gregor crawled out of his dug-out and by sheer chance -- or Kafka's help -- he could find his way to the camp. No one had missed him there, and no one would have looked for him: They would have considered him a casualty of the day's encounter.

"You are charged -- I think -- with murder!" the Captain said. "You have killed innocent people in May-lay, although there are only guilty people."

"I never fired my rifle, Sir," Gregor protested. "I was pinned down by the enemy fire when people died. My body is riddled with splinters."

"That is irrelevant; you must prove with solid evidence that you did not kill, but we know you have done it."

"But, I am innocent!"

"No one is innocent Lieutenant. If not May-lay, then some place else! Surely, you have killed people."

"No, sir; only the enemy -- if I could find him -- , as I am paid to do so. I am on the winning side now!"

"That is irrelevant too, Lieutenant; tomorrow the court will find you guilty, after a proper trial, of course."

"Tomorrow! I do need time to prepare my case; I want an attorney, a good defense attorney."

"Tell them, I'll defend you," Kafka offered. "I am a doctor of law."

"Be quiet, Kafka," Gregor shouted.

"This is an inquiry, Lieutenant," the captain said officiously. "You don't have to shout here. Who is Kafka?"

"Nobody, sir!"

"You deny me! You deny me again!" Kafka exclaimed.

"Yes! Nobody, sir."

"Correct! All is provided for you, rest assured. We do not try criminals without proper preparation and assurances about the out-come. Of course you will be convicted tomorrow."

The jurors looked familiar and suspicious; they sat straight on Gregor's bed while the captain presided from the only chair in the tent that Gregor had retrieved from a burning house in May-lay. Gregor stood at the door, listening to the captain.

"Of course," the captain continued, "this is not strictly a trial; we are only interested in the truth of his guilt. For this reason, we did not consider it necessary to have a formal court of trial with a prosecutor and a defense attorney. I will ask the questions for both sides."

"Am I to understand, Sir," Gregor asked, "that no one will defend me?"

"I will defend you, when the time comes," the captain answered. "We do take care of our own."

"What are the charges," Gregor wanted to know. "Am I being tried for a crime I have not committed?"

No one answered him. They looked at him with contempt and ignored his question. "Why are you here?" finally asked Juror Bauer.

"It is illegal, Sir," the corpulent sergeant whispered to the Captain. "It's illegal for a juror to ask direct questions from an accused man."

The Captain looked up at his sergeant and was not pleased with his advice. "He is not accused," the captain whispered back. "He is guilty as charged; and this is just a mock trial, a dry run, so to speak, for the real one that may come if we don't find him guilty in this court. Then, we, too, will be tried." He then said loudly, "I'll allow the question; Lieutenant Samsa, answer the honorable juror."

"I don't know how to answer this question."

"You are required to answer all questions put to you thoroughly, even if you don't understand them."

"I understand the question, sir, but am I to answer why I am here, in this court, or why I am here at all?"

"Why are you here at all?" Juror Bauer asked.

"Because, I must reclaim my humanity and find myself."

"In the midst of all this killing!?" asked Juror Jesenskà "That is abnormal! Are you really crazy?"

Before Gregor could answer, other jurors started to ask him all at once, "Why didn't you allow him finish writing you?"

"Why didn't you try to rape Anna?"

"Why didn't you trick the officials in 1942?"

"Why aren't you connected with the present unrest in the United States?"

"Why don't you have an autographed photograph of Jane Fonda?"

"Stop it! Stop÷ it, please!" Gregor shouted as he was covering his ears with the palms of his hands, his eyes closed and his head bowed. Like a victim dazed by a shot of high voltage electricity into his body, he was jerking and shaking in pain, not only physical, but also the other kind. Then he begged, "Stop it, please, please. Stop this!"

The jurors fell silent at this unnecessary out burst, disappointed. The captain stood up, went to Gregor, and removed his hands from his ears. "You are a marine," he said with a fatherly voice, "and marines are tough; our tag numbers are etched on our flesh, not on a piece of worthless tin. You must listen and answer like a marine. You are required to answer all questions even if you do not understand them."

"I'm not a marine!"

"You must be; otherwise why would you be here?" The corpulent sergeant objected, his beady, squinting eyes lost in the creases of his fat face.

"I joined the marines so that I might come to America. All I want is to be restored to what I used to be. Is that an unreasonable request?"

"That is deception," the captain said angrily. "That is breaking one law to accommodate another."

"But, Otto Brod told me to join?"

"Is he your accomplice?" asked the corpulent sergeant.

"No, Sir; he is an immigration officer!"

"That figures," the captain complained. "They will let anyone in if they can shift the responsibility to us. No! I will not have it; I will not help another branch of the government to look better than us. Marines are the heart and the head of the country, and we have the better claim to the land."

"Guilty," the jurors said at once.

"Guilty," said the corpulent sergeant.

"Guilty as charged, if not of this offense, then another," said the captain.


Gregor wondered what implications the verdict would have on his identity, his tattoo, as his festering wounds from the tree bled red. He sweat hard, the salt burning the fresh wounds, and he made little noises like a dying animal. No longer able to stand the loss, Gregor begged,

"Forgive me for all that I have not done and all that I have not thought!" and extended his arms upward, as if to catch the nuances of his own being floating invisibly in the air.

"It is not ours to give you mercy," said the captain. "When the real court convenes, you may ask for that judgment."

"I am on fire; I need help."

"Only after the final trial."

"When will that be?"

"The time is always indefinite," the captain said. "There has to be enough guilty people for the court to find it worth its while to convene. They can't just leave their important tasks and come to try only one guilty man. No, that would be quite uneconomical."

"My wounds need dressing," Gregor pled. "I am on fire."

"It is not hell, is it?" the captain asked. "A little suffering will make you a better marine."

"Hell is better," Kafka said. "Why don't you resign and leave?"

"Hands off me, Kafka," Gregor shouted in anger and with bruised pride. "Thank you: I will finish this chapter alone."

Those who were not on trial, laughed loudly, and the jurors? They applauded with intense energy till their hands gave, and they quit until another day.

"Are you going crazy, Marine?" The captain asked mockingly. "This won't do you any good. Claims of insanity won't help you at all. Here, we are all insane, by degrees."

Gregor remained silent and would not argue with the court, or Kafka. They were all ranged against him in one temporarily unified front; even Kafka seemed to have aligned himself with the others. "I will not give the pleasure of admitting defeat to Kafka and letting him rewrite me," Gregor thought. "I will bear even more suffering to despite him!"

Kafka heard Gregor, smiled with hurt, and as he was disappearing, said, "I'll be back when you're ready."

"Yeah!" Gregor said loudly and sat down.

"Of course," Gregor heard the captain saying, "of course, there is an alternative to your waiting for the court."

"Yes!"

"This will save us embarrassment, the court time, and you a way out."

"Yes!"

"You could willingly resign your commission and turn in your tag. Then÷"

"Then?" Gregor asked vaguely.

"Then, we will fly you to Norfolk and retract our property from your arm; then, you could go back to Otto Brod and reclaim whatever it is that you're reclaiming, from him."

"I would like to keep my number, just to have distinctness."

"I'm afraid that's out of the question. When you don't belong with us, you're not one of us with a tag. Like marines, the tag is the property of the United States; when you lose one, you lose the other."

In Norfolk, in the United States Naval Base, a gaunt, short man in striped gown removed an electronic gun from its casing, plugged it into a high voltage line, and inserted a small, sharp needle underneath Gregor's skin on his right arm to retract the number insert. It burned through his flesh, and he could smell the sting of his burning skin. For all this pain, he remained silent, as his soft belly rubbed on the smooth, white tiles of the operating room floor. "Very little is changed," he told himself. "Only instruments are different!"

"Look at that cockroach run," the man, who had used the retraction gun, shouted in fear.

"Spray that cockroach; don't let it get away, that dirty disease÷where is the spray?"

"You have suffered much," Kafka said unsympathetically. "Was it very bad?"

"Kafka! Kafka! Is that you?" Gregor whispered. "I am so glad to see you; after Nam, I was afraid you would leave me for good."

"I told you I will be with you when you call, but you're not ready yet?"

"I think not," Gregor answered. "There are no winners, it seems to me. I may have to think long and hard before I decide again. If I do, that will be the last time."

"We'll see! We'll see!" Kafka said and disappeared.

Gregor disappeared into a crack on the wall, his hard shell crunching painfully as he pushed himself through the narrow slit to escape the spray.

"Cockroaches never die; they live forever. But, human beings die." >>> Go to third and last part

Comment for The Iranian letters section
Comment for the writer Reza Ordoubadian


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