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Kafkaesque dictatorship

Czech author was viewed as a writer who could shed light on national life during military regime

Franz Kafka (1883-1924) was probably the world’s most influential 20th century writer, even though many people do not acknowledge or realize this, as this perception could have stemmed from third parties. Although his style is considered “difficult,” the Czech could even be referred to as a pop icon. In the US in the 1960s, for example, Kafka’s face was disseminated by Andy Warhol, the father of pop art. The episode “Little Girl in the Big Ten,” aired in 2002 on The Simpsons, showed Lisa Simpson at a bar – Café Kafka – patronized by intellectuals. Likewise, Erico Veríssimo named the bar in his story Kafé Kafka, one of the settings in his novel Incidente em Antares (Incident at Antares). Anybody going into a bookshop will come across national and foreign cartoon adaptations of Kafka’s stories and novels. Uma barata chamada Kafka (A cockroach called Kafka) was one of the hits composed by the rock group Inimigos do Rei in the 1980s.

In Brazil, however, this popularity is a relatively new phenomenon. In fact, Kafka’s books were first published in Brazil thirty years after his death. Kafka was granted more bookshelf space precisely at the moment when the country was entering the period of military dictatorship. Could this have been a mere coincidence? Perhaps. Eduardo Manoel de Brito, a researcher at the USP Violence Studies Center, has a Doctorate in German language and literature. He investigated this relationship in his doctoral thesis “Quando a ficção se confunde com a realidade: as obras A colônia penal e O processo como filtros receptivos da ditadura civil-militar brasileira (When fiction and reality merge: In the Penal Colony and The Trial as receptive filters of the Brazilian civilian-military dictatorship),” under the guidance of his thesis advisor, Celeste H. M. Ribeiro de Sousa. He concludes that Kafka was seen – albeit not exclusively, but in fact – as a writer who could shed some light on the political situation that Brazilians experienced during the dictatorship years. Other people also read Kafka’s works because his writings concerned basic existential questions – being launched into the world, the emptiness of existence, the feeling of Adam-like guilt that is never overcome.

However, he explains, that “The Trial” and “In the Penal Colony” were so readily accepted because they literally portrayed what many Brazilians were going through at the time. “It is no coincidence that torture is mentioned in both of Kafka’s texts,” he points out. In his opinion, the combination of proven sources of his thesis, such as newspaper articles and articles from academic journals and other magazines, interviews and the analysis of the appropriateness of the text for its interpretation as a kind of criticism of violence, illustrates that Brazilian intellectual critics had read and divulged Kafka’s texts as a way of reflecting on and criticizing the repressive politics of that time.

The researcher explains why it took so long for Kafka to be translated in Brazil. The reason was that there was only primary information and a lack of familiarity in relation to the author, which could have led to the impression that Kafka was nearly impossible to translate. In an interview with Brito, translator Modesto Carone recalled that he had read somewhere that Kafka had written his works in Czech. “Apparently, the market was not very motivated to translate Kafka, whose writing style was seen as very complex. But in the 1960s, there was a lot of information already available on Kafka. The publication of ‘The Metamorphosis’ in the 1950s helped in this respect. Therefore, it became possible to run the calculated risk of publishing his works systematically.” In Brito’s opinion, marketing fueled the initial motivation that surfaced later on.

Brito’s study is an attempt to show how foreign literature can be a tool for dealing with the “silence” imposed by censorship. “Of course the dictatorship imposed silence on criticism, especially after 1969, following the enactment of the AI-5 [which gave the government absolute powers]. Therefore, reading about torture, senseless persecutions, and deaths caused by a political system in the works of Kafka were ways of overcoming the silence imposed by the regime and of leading people to seek in literary texts that which they were forbidden to discuss openly.” In this way, he adds, when critics spoke about the Soviet dictatorship, relating Kafka’s texts to the dictatorial environment in Brazil, they pierced the imposed silence, and circumvented the political persecution regime in Brazil. But between the lines they were criticizing the Brazilian system.

Brito refers to texts that explicitly relate Kafka to violence in Brazil, even when the words “Brazil” and “Brazilian civil-military dictatorship” are absent. The 1972 article by Antonio Candido, A verdade da repressão (The truth about repression), is a good example. Its core issue is police torture. “There is no reference to the Brazilian police, but, within the general tone of the text, it is very easy to perceive the criticism of torture by the police, and the fact that the police tried to base the truth on the discourse of the tortured party.” The dissolution of the dictatorial regime in the late 1970s enabled more explicit articles to surface, relating Kafka to the country’s dictatorship. This lasted until the 1990s, when Moacyr Scliar focused on Kafka’s The Leopards, which deals explicitly with this issue.

The researcher did not find any records indicating that there was any kind of government control, i.e., censorship, of Franz Kafka’s works. “The fact is that the writer is too hermetic to be directly related to Brazilian political situations.” Moacyr Scliar refers to this in his book, when a policeman shows how uncouth he is as he looks at a high-level literary text. However, this was not the case in Europe: Kafka was censored by the Nazis and was a real problem in the Soviet Union. “During the Nazi dictatorship, Kafka was censored because he was a Jewish writer. He became a problem in the Soviet Union, due to Soviet realism; in fact, conferences were held there to define how to deal with him within the context of the literature to be permitted in Communist countries.”

Brito’s doctoral thesis focuses on the issue based on three main points: the concept of violence, literacy, and the social function of literature. He points out that, in regard to the first principle, he resorted to the concept of Hannah Arendt, but conversed with Walter Benjamin (Criticism of Violence, Criticism of Power) and Michel Foucault (Discipline and Punish) and the issue of micro powers. “These writers made it possible to reflect on violence and on the issue of violence in the State.”  The idea of literacy stems from Russian formalism; it is the notion of looking for that which is specifically literary in a literary text. “In other words, no matter how strongly I focus on the social interpretation of the text, on the critical fundamentals, the in-depth analysis of the text is literary.”

For example, his concern was to deal with the criticism of the works of Kafka from the viewpoint of a literature scholar, rather than of a sociologist. “I found the social function of literature in the writings of Antonio Candido, with whom I maintained a brief correspondence during the first years of work on my thesis. The discussion on the function of literature – and the search for a social focus – without disregarding specific literary criticism, hence the loyalty to the principles advocated by Russian formalism, was important to me.” He found this in critic Antonio Candido, who does not make literature instrumental in favor of anything other than aesthetic literary value, but  uses literary work as a starting point for touching upon  life within society.