LONELY VOICE #18: Kafka the Dad (Part Three of Five Stray Thoughts on Kafka)


In an essay called “The I Without a Self,” W.H. Auden tells us about a rumor “which if true might have occurred in a Kafka story.” That is that Kafka, without knowing it, fathered a child. Kafka’s son, according to the rumor, died in 1921 at the age of seven. Auden further writes, “The story cannot be verified because the mother was arrested by Germans in 1944 and never heard from again.”

Let’s say for the purpose of the Lonely Voice (Purpose? Wait, this column has a purpose?) that the rumor is true. Let’s say that the man who knew so much, so uncomfortably much about father love and father unlove (see “The Judgment,” See “The Metamorphosis”) was a father himself. But he doesn’t know it. At least he doesn’t know it factually – but somewhere inside his tattered soul he does feel that someone related to him is out there walking around in the world and he finds himself at the end of the first decade of the last century in a crowded, morning tram and he spots a boy, an ordinary boy. An ordinary little boy with something oddly familiar about him. A round head, thick eyebrows, the eyes, yes, something too wide about the boy’s eyes. He stares at the boy and the boy stares back. Or the boy seems too anyway. But really he’s only gazing at just another man in a suit, in a hat, on this crowded tram. And but for the giveaway eyes, he’s a fat cheeked healthy boy with not an ounce of curiosity and, most amazingly, no consecrated halo of loneliness. A miracle, farewell burden of inheritance, hasta luego sins of the father. He fights the urge to howl out loud. What’s your name, kid? I’m your dad. Call me Franz. You’ll never see me again. I’ll fade away from this morning like the ghost I’ve always been. He looks at the boy’s feet. They aren’t small, aren’t big. They are blessed average-sized feet and he thinks of them withdrawing from battered shoes at the end of a day like today and what it might be like to cradle them in his sweaty, alone hands.

Peter Orner is the author of two novels, two story collections (Little, Brown), and the editor of two oral histories (Voice of Witness/ McSweeney's/ Verso). His latest book is Am I Alone Here?, an essay collection published in November, 2016 by Catapult with illustrations by Eric Orner. A new book of oral history set in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and co-edited with Dr. Evan Lyon, will be published by Voice of Witness/ Verso, in January, 2017. Peter Orner currently teaches at the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers as well as at San Francisco State University where he is currently chair of the Creative Writing Department. More from this author →