Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 748
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...
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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 banishes him from his house, his protection, and his sight. He watches Karl make his own choice and then suffer the consequences of his own decision, without first warning him of the effects. Driven from his uncle’s house as he had been driven from his parents’, Karl finds himself once again adrift and uncertain. In this state, he is easy prey for the two immigrant tramps, an Irishman called Robinson and a Frenchman called Delamarche. The tramps seem to befriend Karl, only to betray his trust repeatedly as they travel together to Butterford, the land of milk and honey and well-paying jobs that they never reach. Instead, Karl finds temporary refuge at the Hotel Occidental, where he comes under the patronage of Grete Mitzelbach, the hotel’s manageress. Grete, like Karl (and Kafka), is a native of Prague. With her help, he becomes a lift boy, a position that gratifies Karl even as it makes him a virtual slave in the complex organization of the vast hotel.
Clearly, Amerika is not a Horatio Alger story of rags to riches and virtue rewarded. Dismissed for reasons that the head porter says are too serious to be specified, Karl once again takes up with Robinson and Delamarche, whose situations have visibly improved since their chance meeting with a wealthy and enormously fat singer, Brunelda. When he learns that he is destined to be one of Brunelda’s servants, Karl balks. With no better prospects, however, he stays on until he chances upon a placard advertising positions with the Nature Theatre of Oklahoma. Karl goes to the Nature Theatre’s temporary recruitment center, accepts a vaguely defined position as “technical worker,” and continues on his way—this time toward Oklahoma, which is less a state of the union than a state of mind or, better, a state of Karl’s and Kafka’s absurdly hopeful imagination.
Amerika does, therefore, have an ending of sorts. Because the novel’s plot is only apparently sequential, however, no conclusion is possible. In fact, the plot is recurrent and endless, the playing of the same basic situation over and over, a comic reenactment of Albert Camus’ existential reading of the myth of Sisyphus. In Kafka’s telling, the boy is banished from his home (and from the certainty and stability his home represents), goes in search of something more certain and more permanent, and, with the help of a benefactor (Uncle Jacob, for example, or the manageress), finds home, only to lose it as before. Traduced and yet again an outcast, Karl searches ahead for what he has lost behind him or perhaps never had—except as a dream or a delusion.