Not that I’m any sort of expert on this topic, but I think Kafka-esque is an overused word, often applied to just about any noirish work of anxiety, and ignoring one of the most distinct elements of Franz K’s claustrophobic worlds: his very particular, absurdist black humour. Most of us don’t think of Kafka in especially funny terms. I think instinctively of a sallow-faced, sunken-cheeked man with a haunted expression, condemned to spend eternity in a drab office where nothing ever gets done. I think of Jeremy Irons (who played Kafka in Steven Soderbergh’s eponymous 1990 film; but I might have thought of Jeremy Irons even if that film had never been made). I think of the worried, tight-jawed Anthony Perkins (who had just come off playing Norman Bates when he starred in Orson Welles’ crepuscular The Trial in 1962).
But Kafka is also seriously funny. And Orhan Pamuk’s Snow is a novel more than worthy of being called Kafka-esque, capturing absurdism as well as it does tragedy. The protagonist, the poet Ka, is one of the genuinely unforgettable characters (another overused description) in recent fiction, a melancholy modern-day K wandering the streets of Kars in Turkey, caught in a crossfire between secular and fundamentalist Islamists.
Ka isn’t funny himself, but the events he’s embroiled in, and the people he encounters, are. The description of a meeting where extremists debate the contents of a televised message they want to send to the Western world is as brilliantly, morbidly comic as anything in The Trial. There is great beauty but also (intentional, I’m certain) great humour in the way poems keep coming to Ka during his time in Kars (he hasn’t written one for the four years previous), and how he often doesn’t even have the time or opportunity to note them down. And what about the timid, aging detective who is hired to follow Ka around the city. And the confused youngsters who start crying when they suspect that they might be atheists inside.
Snow is a book of great power. It’s beautiful in its imagery (especially in its use of snow, and the theatre) and profound in its observation of wasted lives and the ways in which people use religion as a crutch, continuing to cling to it past the point of belief simply because they have nothing else to cling to. But it’s somehow cuttingly funny about all these things too. It isn’t often you come across a book that manages to send up the absurdity of its characters’ actions while at the same time being gently empathetic towards them. This might seem to be a book about the shades of Islam (which is one reason it’s doing so well around the world) but it implicates all of us.
P.S. A few years ago, I saw a short film with the extraordinary title Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life, starring Richard E Grant as the harried writer seeking inspiration on a snowy Christmas night as, bedevilled by distractions, he tries to finish the first line of his new story: "Grigor Samsa awakes to find himself transformed into a gigantic... WHAT??" A banana? A kangaroo? It was a funny film. Franz K would have smiled. Even Jeremy Irons might have.