Investigations of a Dog and Other Creatures, a collection of Michael Hofmann’s new translations of Kafka stories, is out next month from New Directions. Below, three of our favorites.
Poseidon was sitting at his desk working. The administration of all the waters was a huge task. He could have had as many assistants as he wanted, and in fact he did have a large staff, but since he took his job very seriously and went through all the calculations himself anyway, assistants were of little use to him. One couldn’t say that the work made him happy either; he only did it because it was his to do. Yes, he had often requested happier work, as he put it, but whenever they came back to him with suggestions, it turned out that nothing appealed to him as much as what he was doing. It was actually very difficult to find anything else for him. It was hardly possible to put him in charge of a particular sea, quite apart from the fact that the calculations involved were no less onerous, just more trivial, since great Poseidon was only ever in line for an executive post. And if he was offered a job in a different department, the very thought of it was enough to turn his stomach, his divine breath became restless, his bronze thorax quaked. Not that they took his complaints all that seriously: if a great power kicks up, then you have to be seen to give into him, even in the most hopeless cause; no one seriously thought of having Poseidon removed from office, he had been god of the seas from the beginning of time, and would have to remain such.
The thing that most angered him—and this was the principal cause of his unhappiness in his job—was when he got to hear what people thought it involved, that is, forever parting the waves with his trident. And when all the time he was sitting at the bottom of the ocean up to his ears in figures, the occasional visit to Jupiter was really the only break in the monotony; a visit, moreover, from which he usually returned in a towering bad temper. He hardly ever clapped eyes on the seas, only fleetingly on his hurried way up to Olympus, and he had never sailed them as such. He tended to say he was waiting for the world to end first, because there was bound to be a quiet moment just before the end when he had signed off on his last calculation and would be able to take himself on a little cruise somewhere.
Yesterday I visited company HQ for the first time. Our night shift had elected me as their spokesman and since the design and filling of our oil lamps both leave something to be desired, I was to go there to demand that these grievances be addressed. I was shown to the relevant office, knocked and entered. A delicate young man, very pale, smiled at me from behind a big desk. He nodded liberally, excessively. I wasn’t sure whether to sit down or not—there was a chair there, but I thought that on the occasion of my first visit I perhaps shouldn’t sit, and so I made my case standing up. It turns out this modesty of mine created difficulties for the young gentleman, because he had to crane his neck and turn his face up to me if he wasn’t to move his chair back, which he didn’t want to do. Then again, try as he might, he was unable to incline his head sufficiently and so, all the time I was talking, he was squinting up at the ceiling, where I couldn’t help but follow. When I was finished, he slowly got to his feet, patted me on the back, said: I see, I see, and pushed me into the adjacent office where a gentleman with a wild growth of beard had evidently been waiting for us, because there was no sign on his desk of any work, while an open glass door led out to a little garden clustered with flowers and shrubs. A brief whispered aside of not many words from the young man was enough to apprise the gentleman of our grievances. He stood up right away and said: Well now, my dear—I think he wanted to say my name, and I was already opening my mouth to introduce myself all over again, but he cut me off: There, that’s all right, I know you very well—well, your petition or complaint is certainly justified, I and the gentlemen on the board would be the last people not to see that. The welfare of the workforce means more to us—believe me—than the health of the factory. And why not, indeed? The factory can be rebuilt any time, it’s just money, who cares about money, but if a human being loses his life, then a human being loses his life, and there is a widow and orphans. Dear Lord, yes. So every proposal to bring in new safety measures, new relief, new comfort, new luxuries, is most welcome to us. Whoever comes to us with such is our man. So just you leave your suggestions here, we will pore over them in detail; should some other dazzling innovation be attached to them, I’m sure we won’t omit it, and at the end of the process you’ll get your new lamps. Now go and tell your people downstairs: we won’t rest until we’ve converted your mineshaft into a drawing room, and if you don’t end up dying in patent-leather slippers, then you won’t die at all. Now, good day!
There was a vulture that hacked at my feet. He had already shredded my boots and my socks, now he was attacking my feet. He picked away at them, then he flew around me a couple of times skittishly, before resuming his work. A gentleman came along and watched for a while, then he asked me why I tolerated the vulture. “I’m helpless,” I said. “He came and started hacking at me, and of course I wanted to drive him away, I even tried to strangle him, but a beast like that has a lot of strength in him, and he was about to leap at my face, so I thought it was better to sacrifice my feet. Now they’re almost shredded.” “How can you stand to be tormented like that,” said the gentleman, “a single bullet, and that vulture is history.” “Is that right?” I asked, “and would you oblige me?” “Willingly,” said the gentleman, “I just have to go home and get my gun. Can you wait another half an hour?” “I don’t know,” I said, and I stood for a while, rigid with pain. Then I said: “Well, will you try anyway?” “Very well,” said the gentleman, “I’ll be as quick as I can.”
The vulture had been listening to our conversation, and kept looking back and forth between me and the gentleman. Now I saw that he had understood everything, he flew up, leaning right back to get plenty of momentum, and then, like a javelin thrower, he thrust his beak through my mouth deep into me. As I fell back, I could feel a sense of deliverance as he wallowed and drowned in the blood that now filled all my vessels and burst its banks.
Translated from the German by Michael Hofmann.