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by Franz Kafka

Field-Tested by Lee Klein

in Copan Ruinas, Honduras

I sat on a ledge of Spanish Colonial cement along the side of a seemingly abandoned structure that invited a travel-tired gringo to read and rest. The sun would soon set. I enjoyed some of Franz Kafka's Amerika along with an early-evening snack of saltines and white rum.

By the time I'd made it to this scenic spot overlooking a small farmer's field and a mud-walled hut that garaged a handsome donkey, I'd been traveling for months through Central America. It was late November, but the weather was way more vernal than autumnal. Hot sun + white rum washed down by saltines = lots of fun reading the misadventures of Karl Rossmann, a young man sent to America after impregnating the family maid. Both Kafka's Karl and the young Klein, flushed from their countries, engaged in journeys across wild territories. Karl's first impression of America was of the Statue of Liberty holding high over her head a sword, while his subsequent impressions were equally accurate (Kafka himself never traveled to America.) It was the American expansiveness Karl encountered that interested me — the same sort of thing my restlessness demanded I seek in Central America. Much like Karl, I often found myself, either by fate or unconscious agoraphobia, driven from wide open spaces to tight confines: packed buses, dingy hotel rooms, and finally — after absorbing into my system more than a single-sitting's share of Kafka's Amerika, washed down with white rum I washed down with saltines — I found myself standing in the cramped lobby of a Honduran jail. Kafka's Karl crossed the ocean to find himself in New York, but instead of rushing into the streets, he found himself in the ship's furnace room, talking to the stoker. (I realize I've repeated variations on the phrase “find himself” three times in the last few sentences; I didn't do it purposefully, at first, but it makes sense that I did, since “finding yourself,” as they say, is the unarticulated purpose of such travel when still young-ish.)

My stokers in Central America were Honduran police who accosted me for peeing in public, and thankfully, found my rum-fueled Spanish entertaining enough to grant my release. The next day I explored the extraordinary ruin site there, then went on and on until home. Karl, for his part, made it out of many confined situations himself, until the book ends, unfinished, in the Great Plains of Kansas. With no way to work himself into some tight situation when confronted with so much open space, the young Kafka abandoned young Karl for novels set in worlds that didn't quite exist, much the way I've abandoned the young man who once “found himself” peeing on a trash heap across the street from a Honduran police station in favor of a hopefully somewhat more substantial American life. Read The Trial in the fall, The Castle in the winter, the stories in the spring, but save summer for Amerika, the book affectionately referred to as “Kafka Lite.”

Lee Klein's writing has recently appeared (or will appear) in AGNI Online, The Black Warrior Review, Canteen, and The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2007. He also edits Eyeshot.

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