NY Times: Kafka’s cockroach was real! (Really?)

It turns out that the giant cockroach in The Metamorphosis was Franz Kafka’s neighbor, who apparently suffered from “entomological dysplasia.” Said his editor, quoted in The New York Times:

“The story is true. Kafka simply wrote a completely verifiable, journalistic account of a neighbor by the name of Gregor Samsa who, because of some bizarre medical condition, turned into a ‘monstrous vermin.’ Kafka assured us that he’d made the whole thing up. We now know that to be completely false. The account is 100 percent true.”

But when one checks the facts presented in the “coverage” of this revelation (really an op-ed piece), cracks appear immediately:

In a telephone interview, Mr. Kafka was contrite and tearful. “I know what I did was wrong,” he said. “I’m very alienated from myself, but that’s no excuse to lie. I took someone’s life and selfishly turned it into an enigmatic literary parable.”

The problem is, Kafka died in 1924; he could not have been interviewed for the piece.

This detail unraveled, the whole story twists back on itself. It becomes a Kafka-esque parable. (Entomological meta-dysplasia?!)

“I’m not sure how this happened,” said Mr. Kafka’s brother, B., of Oxnard, Calif. “My brother is weird, but he doesn’t have that good an imagination. A man who becomes a big bug… my brother couldn’t make that up if his life depended on it. As soon as I read ‘The Metamorphosis’ I knew it was true. Don’t they fact-check fiction?”

Mr. Kafka’s publishers are now reviewing all his works of fiction — stories about singing mice, “hunger artists” and men on trial for crimes they’re not aware of having committed — to determine whether they too are true.

“We were duped,” said E., Mr. Kafka’s editor. “The whole story is pure, unadulterated non-fiction. This guy’s a complete con man.”

The author’s purpose seems to be to draw attention to those works of fiction which have recently been revealed as being inspired by true events. (Whether it had been true or not, The Metamorphosis would still be a great story.) He mocks those who would suggest otherwise.

“I’ve been teaching ‘The Metamorphosis’ for years, said a professor of literature at Princeton, who insisted that he be identified as P. “I’ve called it one of the most sublime pieces of literature ever written. Elias Canetti called it ‘one of the few great and perfect poetic works written during this century.’ To find out that it’s actually true is devastating.”

But to get the joke, you need to know something about history.

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About Jeremy Burman

Jeremy Trevelyan Burman is a senior doctoral student in York University’s Department of Psychology, specializing in the history of developmental psychology and its theory (especially that pertaining to Jean Piaget). Prior to returning to academia, he was a producer at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.