Apparently, when it comes to reading, for me this is the year of “catching up”; I’m reading books I should have read years ago under the mantra better late than never. It has an upside, you know, as when you discover Agatha Christie at 30 – Yes, I haven’t read her books as a teenager- you feel thankful you hadn’t read them and that she wrote so many books that now you’re spoiled for choice.
It was in the same fashion that I picked up The Metamorphosis by Kafka, not only because it’s preposterous to be a writer born in the 20th century and haven’t read anything by Kafka yet, but because of one particular thing I’ve read about how he was the inspiration behind Gabriel Garcia Marquez, as Marquez himself said that when he started reading The Metamorphosis, specifically the very first line where a man wakes up to find himself transformed into a giant cockroach, he had this epiphany that “Anyone can write anything they want”, and from there he went on to write what he wanted indeed, transcending the lines that separate fiction from reality.
I was aware before I started reading that this is a work of literature that has been interpreted, analyzed and dissected over and over again, but I was yet to see for myself what the fuss was all about. In the beginning it seemed like a bad dream, too absurd not only in the sense that the protagonist Gregor Samsa woke up one day to find that he was transformed into a vermin, but because of his reaction to it. One would imagine that if you were to wake up one morning to find yourself transformed into an insect you would be washed over with panic, wondering what on earth has happened, not worrying about being late to work. You would be busy thinking how you could possibly get back into your human form, not how to arrange your life as to fit the new situation.
But then things started to come into focus, especially as he described the family’s reaction to that metamorphosis, forsaking him, all but his loyal sister, and thinking how they would make ends meet now as they have been depending on him as the main bread-winner in the household. Now it all made sense, Kafka was peeling away at reality, he was showing us the bare truth: the value of the human being in the capitalistic, consumerist world, the ongoing dehumanization as a person is reduced to his net worth: you have money, then you matter. You don’t, then you’re no more than a pest. The only sympathy Gregor gets comes from his sister, and a little bit from his mother, but then even that changes and his sister who was once his biggest advocate becomes his biggest adversary as she urges her father to get rid of that insect who they should not consider to be Gregor anymore, which contributes to his eventual demise. All of that puts into focus another important theme of the story, a scary theme perhaps which people in real life often avoid talking about directly: the limits of sympathy.
I found the last part of the story brilliant; the way guilt is mixed with the feeling of liberation after the cockroach had died. They knew their son and brother was trapped somewhere inside that insect, but they couldn’t help but see it as such, an insect that was making their life harder than it already was. What was also brilliant is that we could see things from Gregor’s point of view as he spoke his mind, and at the same time we could see his family dealing with him based on his outer appearance as the insect he was transformed into, losing the ability to communicate little by little but more importantly, not even trying. The obstacles which the body can put before the mind, and the connection between the two.
All in all, I found the story disturbing, and I have no doubt it was meant to be so, and the more you think about it, the more disturbing it gets. So you can dig into the themes and the symbols in the story, or you can just treat it as a surreal piece of literature and let it mess with your mind however way it pleases. For me, it was inevitably both.