Kafka’s Son by Curt Leviant (Dzanc Books, 486 pp. $15.95)
Kafka’s Son, Curt Leviant’s latest novel, may or may not successfully capture the family Kafka never had, but it incorporates great moments of madcap comedy as well as pays homage to the world’s best postmodernist novelists such as Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel García Márquez.
Readers are in for a wild ride as the novel has no fewer than seven beginnings—and concludes with seven endings. The first beginning—with a bow to Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick—reads as follows:
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.
Amschl, a documentary filmmaker, is a man caught between the intuitive and the counterintuitive, between what can be said “on the one hand” and what can be said “on the other.” The result is a novel that ties itself into knots, and a narrator who is both “playfully Serious” and “seriously Playful.”
In Kafka’s Son, one teasing detail leads to another as Amschl attempts to make a film about Kafka’s Prague and then about Kafka himself. There is no end to the clues he collects, beginning with Jiri, an elderly Czech Jew he meets at a synagogue on New York’s Lower East Side who was once the head of the Jewish Museum of Prague.
This strange personage alludes to a son that Kafka might have had. He gives Amschl a list of people he should look up when he goes to Prague to further his research, because they alone can lead him to Kafka’s elusive child.
In Prague, Amschl takes the tourist route, making pilgrimages to the Kafka Museum and to the 900-year-old Altneuschul, where, in the late 16th century, Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague brought the folkloric golem to life.
Amschl tries to separate what clearly can’t be true from what just might be. Certainly, he is teased by some characters, such as the old shamesh of the Altneuschul, in whose attic, rumor says, the golem may still hide. What Amschl wants is nothing less than a glimpse inside the attic—but there is no attic and no golem. When Amschl keeps pestering him, the shamesh pulls out a pocket mirror and holds it up to Amschl’s face. After the image sinks in, the mischievous shamesh goes in for the kill. The moment, in paraphrase, goes like this: There, there is the golem you’ve been looking for! End of story. The mirror trick, repeated many times over, never fails to get a hearty chuckle from those who witness it.
The best Amschl can do is re-create the most vivid stories in scripted scenes. This, alas, is not how genuine documentaries are shot. But Amschl’s camera rolls nonetheless and he is genuinely pleased with the results, even as his investigation into the Kafka family grows cold.
How Kafka managed to stay alive after his death in 1924 is one of the novel’s many deceptions—rather like the author referencing himself in his own novel. Amschl is furious that Leviant has ripped him off:
Maybe it’s something I wrote. And somebody swiped it. It’s probably Leviant. The minute I write something, that word-thief nabs it and puts it into one of his thoroughly unreadable, certifiably meretricious books.
In Kafka’s Son, Leviant does the near impossible by using a complicated style and turning it into a successful novel.