by Curt Leviant
Dzanc Books, 487 pages
Before you begin reading Curt Leviant’s latest novel, Kafka’s Son, you are confronted with a curious bit of information. There are a dozen quotes from French reviews included in the first few pages before the title page. Why? Because the book first appeared in French translation a few years ago — before its publication early in 2016 in the original English — and garnered incredible reviews. One reviewer on French national TV called Kafka’s Son “a work of genius.”
A roller-coaster ride of a novel that is a mystery, travelogue, love story, and literary analysis (Metamorphosis as comedy), Kafka’s Son is, most importantly, a challenge to our sense of historical timelines.
As our narrator meets one memorable character after another, the action rushes forward until the last page, which will astonish and surprise the narrator and delight the reader.
The big question is: Did Kafka have a son?
Leviant opens the novel with no fewer than seven beginnings, and concludes with an equal number of endings.
Beginning No. 1 is a nod to Melville and Moby-Dick:
“Call me Amschl. All right, so don’t call me Amschl. Nobody does anyway. Except when I’m called up to the Torah by my Hebrew name: Amschl ben Moshe.”
He is our narrator.
Beginning No. 2 tells readers they are entering a world where imagination and suspension of disbelief will launch them on a great adventure:
“This is a true story. True story!? Humbug…. Either a narrative is true or it’s a story. It cannot be both. Period. End of story.”
Let me unfold the plot just enough to get you started. Giving you too many details will spoil the fun. You will want to be puzzled, startled, and enlightened as you travel along with our questing narrator.
Amschl, a documentary filmmaker, is prompted by an elderly Czech Jew he meets in the Eldridge Street Synagogue in New York City to go to Prague and make a film about the true history of his idol, Franz Kafka.
Everything seems possible in Prague, a mystical city. With camera in hand, he visits the oldest synagogue, the Altneushul, where the legendary Golem is said to be asleep in the attic. Another character says he survived the German invasion in that same attic.
His other encounters include a man with a “golem’s” face; the old beadle of the synagogue who insists there never was an attic; Katya, the beautiful girl in the blue beret who knows more than she tells our narrator, agrees to go to a concert with him, and then disappears; a man who swears he is Kafka’s son, and then he too disappears; and the enigmatic Mr. Klein, who does not disappear.
Mr. Klein becomes a companion, but raises additional questions. His very high energy level and obvious old age is puzzling. Katya reappears and leads our narrator to a synagogue not listed in the Jewish sites brochure, where he spots Mr. Klein praying quietly. The plaster lions guarding the Holy Ark leap off and come alive. Amschl is both frightened and frustrated because he does not have his camera to record this fantastic scene. Katya and Mr. Klein share knowing glances and a few words to add to the puzzle.
“The whole thing didn’t make sense” to Amschl but he plods on, hoping to clear up one implausible “fact” after another. At one point the absurdities pile up, and he thinks, “It reminded me of what I learned in geometry, maybe algebra: multiply two negative numbers and you get a positive…. You add up two absurds and get one truth.”
The puzzle is compounded by the fact that all of these characters are breathing, rational, real people. Along with our narrator you want to believe them. You will also note that most of them have a “K” beginning their first or last name.
The narrator keeps moving forward, looking for the breakthrough, and takes the reader, who becomes a willing partner on this whirlwind journey, to the startling ending I promised above.
Kafka’s Son is a superb novel that can be enjoyed on many levels. It keeps you guessing and turning pages to uncover the truth.