Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

As in many of his other stories, Kafka here employs a simple, matter-of-fact narrative style to recount a plot both realistic and fantastic. As a result of that style, one can easily overlook the logical incongruities of the mixture. Most evidently, Kafka has animals converse with men about matters normally thought to preoccupy only human beings: subjugation and liberation, sin and guilt, the upholding of cultural traditions. He has them act with a cunning and deceit of the sort also generally thought to be humankind’s exclusive talent—or weakness. If the conversation at the heart of “Jackals and Arabs” makes exceptional creatures of the jackals, however, it also implies a critique of humanity. The animal chosen for this parable is not a noble one in the popular mind, but one thought of as a scavenger, unclean, ill-tempered, and cowardly.

For most northern Europeans, a desert oasis is not an ordinary and familiar place, but the overlay of Kafka’s realistic description nevertheless includes occasional glances into its far-from-exotic corners, as with the references to the unbearably rank smell that the beasts emit and with the account of the jackal that sinks its teeth into the dead camel’s throat, working at the artery “like a vehement small pump.” Even when his purpose is serious, Kafka’s essentially humorous view of events is apparent. The narrator glosses his delicate situation among a pack of unpredictable jackals with dry understatement of the dangers. Both the jackals and the Arab caravan driver are given to sarcastic opinions of each other; at a point of potentially high philosophical seriousness, the jackals resort to comic buffoonery to illustrate the uncleanness of killing.

On the subject of parables, Kafka once said that they reside in and refer to a fabulous realm and have no use in practical, everyday life. The most they can do is tell readers that the incomprehensible is incomprehensible, and they know that in any case. To follow parables one would have to abandon reality and become a parable oneself. As usual, “Jackals and Arabs” will be comprehensible to the jackals and Arabs in the story. To the “Northerner” on his brief stay in their country, and to the reader, it offers no explanation of its paradoxes.