(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The plot of Amerika is deceptively simple, following a young immigrant’s adventures from his arrival at New York Harbor to his “disappearance” on a journey to Oklahoma. The novel remains unfinished, yet it is paradoxically complete. Karl Rossmann’s adventures—or rather his misadventures—begin even before he steps ashore. After seeing the Statue of Liberty (through Franz Kafka’s surrealistic imagination, Liberty’s torch is supplanted by a sword), Karl goes below decks to retrieve his umbrella. In typically Kafkaesque fashion, this simple act develops into a complex odyssey: He loses his way and, as a result, meets the Stoker, the first of many ambiguous guides and fellow sufferers. After listening to the Stoker’s litany of wrongs suffered, Karl accompanies him to the ship’s office, where the authorities’ indifference prompts Karl to advocate the Stoker’s case. That Karl should speak with such assurance about a man he hardly knows appears entirely natural given the dream logic of Kafka’s seemingly realistic novel. In such a world, where sudden and comically absurd appearances are the norm rather than the exception, it is equally natural that his defense of the Stoker should lead Karl to his wealthy Uncle Jacob (or a man who believes Karl to be his nephew). In Kafka’s fiction, everything is plausible and everything is in doubt.

The nearly penniless immigrant is thus saved—ironically and momentarily, for Uncle Jacob’s protection is a mixed blessing. Even as he shields Karl from all the harshness of the immigrant experience, Uncle Jacob in effect imprisons his nephew in his house. He deprives Karl of any chance of freedom and demands total submission to his authority. When Karl chooses to accept an offer to spend the might with one of his uncle’s business associates, Uncle Jacob...

(The entire section is 748 words.)