On Innocence, Forgetfulness, and Reading in Kafka’s “Amerika: The Man Who Disappeared”


Kafka was fascinated with the meaning of innocence and guilt.   His characters are often portrayed as both innocent and guilty.   But the confluence of the two appeals not so much to a theological theme so much as to the reader’s relationship with Kafka’s characters. It seems as if Kafka created a situation where the reader is prompted to judge the main character’s actions: is the character’s innocence good or bad? And must I, as a reader, fight against the cynical tendency I or my culture has to judge innocence as stupidity or a failure to act and think properly? And this prompts a deeper literary question: What is the purpose of comedy? Do we learn, from such innocent characters, what not to be? Or do we, rather, gain insight into who we are? When it comes to comedy, is action or reflection primary? What is the basis for such a decision? And should that decision be based on an evaluation of the consequences?

Kafka’s Karl Rossmann, the main character of his novel Amerika: The Missing Person (and his short story “The Stoker”) provides the reader with an opportunity to address these questions. They all emerge when the reader is prompted to assess Karl Rossmann’s innocence and forgetfulness in terms of his character and situation.

At the outset of the novel, we learn that Karl Rossmann is “entering” New York Harbor on a “slow-moving” ship.   We also learn that he is “17 years old” and that his parents “sent him to America” because a “servant girl had seduced him” and “borne a child by him.” These circumstances suggest that Rossmann’s journey to America is not something he thought deeply about; it is circumstantial. And he did so because his parents sent him away from a situation in which he, apparently, did nothing wrong. Apparently, he is innocent.

But the reader cannot but wonder about what really happened and about what it means that his “parents” sent him away. Is Karl Rossmann really innocent? Or did he do something to the “servant girl?” In addition, the fact that his parents sent him away suggests that he is still a child – even though he is at an age of maturity. All of these factors alter our identification with Rossmann. Should we identify with a character that is so questionable?

Looking at the “Statue of Liberty,” Rossmann says two words “So high.” His observation is disjointed because the words that follow it suggest that he doesn’t say it as a person who has high hopes for a new life. Apparently, he didn’t think too much about leaving Europe:

“So high,” he said to himself, and although he still had not thoughts of leaving, he found himself being pushed gradually toward the rail by an ever-swelling throng of porters. (3)

Rossmann’s life, it seems, is accidental. He gets “pushed” from one place to another.   He doesn’t seem to know or care about where he is going. Rossmann is simply an innocent 17 year old who is going along with the current.

When asked by an excited passenger if he is ready to “get off” the ship, Rossmann acts as if he’s excited: “Oh, I’m ready all right,” said Karl with a laugh, and in his exuberance, sturdy lad that he was, he lifted his trunk up on his shoulders.” But in his “exuberant” attempt to act as if he is a man with a purpose, Rossmann realizes that he had “forgotten his umbrella below deck.”   In other words, Rossmann makes a schlemiel move.   His forgetfulness prompts him to interrupt his act.   And lose his direction. Now Kafka creates a divided consciousness: Rossmann leaves his trunk behind in order to get his umbrella down below.

Rossmann’s descent “down below” to get his umbrella throws him into a labyrinth in which he gets lost. He can no longer act as if he knows where he is going:

Downstairs he was disappointed to find a passageway that would have certainly shortened his path blocked off for the first time…and was obliged to make his way laboriously through numerous small rooms, corridors that constantly turned off, many short stairs in rapid succession and an empty room with an abandoned desk…he had quite lost his way. (4)

Now, Rossmann panics and “in his uncertainty” he starts “knocking at random on a little door before which he had halted.” The theme of being stuck before doors and unable to more is a constant in Kafka’s work. And, oftentimes, the person who is stuck is innocent.   However, in many of these cases where Kafka’s characters get stuck, the reader is prompted to ask whether or not this should have happened. Although Rossmann is innocent, perhaps he shouldn’t have shown any concern from his umbrella and just moved on – acting as if he had somewhere to go.

Nonetheless, sometimes surprises can be life-altering and luck can subvert proper decision making. The person who answers the door is the “Stoker.”

“It’s open,” cried a voice within and, sighing with general relief, Karl stepped into the cabin. “Why do you have to bang on the door like a madman?” a huge man asked, almost without looking at Karl. (4)

By letting him in, the Stoker alters Rossmann’s life. He gives Rossmann new possibilities.   The possibilities suggest something religious. Rossmann says he “lost his way.”   The Stoker is hospitable and invites Rossmann in to his home/cabin.   As readers, we can see that this character, despite that fact that he is friendly, is over-talkative and has no problem bringing a complete stranger into his life. Rossmann, however, has no problem with this:

“Lie down on the bed, that’ll give you more room,” said the man. Karl crawled in as best he could, laughing loudly at his initially futile attempt to swing himself ont to eh bed. No sooner was he lying down on than he cried: “Oh, my goodness, I forgot about my trunk.” (5)

What is astonishing is how much Rossmann, in his innocence, trusts this stranger and takes to him as if the Stoker will help him in some way. Rossmann’s forgetfulness – coupled with his trust – adds to his schlemiel character:

Perhaps I should stick with this man – thought Karl – for where else could I find a better friend just now? (5)

Besides his trust, the Stoken jokingly complements Rossmann who says that he “believes” that his trunk is still on deck with the man he trusted: “‘Blessed are those who believe,’ said the man.”   The blessing indicates that Rossman’s trust has something religious about it.

But while it is the case that in a Sholem Aleichem story, the innocent character is endearing (think, for instance, of Aleichem’s Motl or Tevye), here, this is not so much the case.   Aleichem’s schlemiel is different from Kafka’s because Kafka’s Rossmann prompts the reader to think more critically about the people he is meeting along the way and the decisions he makes.

Like many a schlemiel, Rossmann’s absent-mindedness can get him in trouble. However, Kafka creates reasons for the reader to be suspicious of Rossmann and though his innocence and trust may be endearing they can also be read as stupid and even infantile. This is what Heinz Politzer claims in his book, Franz Kafka: Parable and Paradox.

That aside, what the Stoker does is give Rossmann an opportunity to defend him to the Captain of the ship (since the Stoker is in a difficult situation by virtue of a woman he fooled around with and a Hungarian – the Stoker is German – who has a problem with him).   This opportunity puts the schlemiel in the position of a defense attorney.   There is a question and a problem here which Kafka is testing: Can a schlemiel, who has no knowledge of the situation save for what he learned at that moment, profess the innocence of a man who is most likely not innocent?

This question and the problem make it difficult for the reader to identify with Rossmann’s innocence – in particular – and innocence in general. Kafka has, in effect, used literature to pose deep questions about the meaning of the schlemiel and innocence. While Aleichem preserves our belief in the schlemiel and in the power of innocence, Kafka, with these characters and situations, puts it into question.   Kafka, it seems, was weighing these questions and knew that, for him (just like for a Midrashist or Talmudist), the meaning of innocence depends on how or whether the reader identifies with a character and his actions.

Innocence, for Kafka, is a spiritual pre-requisite. However, as he well knew it may go nowhere.   Even if a character is able to pass the gate or make a friend, his innocence does not preserve him from a tragic-comic conclusion. Rossmann’s laughter indicates this double-edged aspect of innocence. Sometimes acting “as if” something is true or good may only lead to problems. However, as Kafka well knew, the alternative is bitterness and cynicism.  Kafka laid out these possibilities in this novel and gave them to the reader.


….to be continued.

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