This is just the sort of thing that would have driven the famously neurotic Franz Kafka even crazier. Now his visage is condemned to always face city hall.
Archive for the ‘Kafka, Franz’ Category
Last night my son Lex and I watched the film version of “The Kite Runner.” When it was over, I asked him what he thought.
“It was okay,” he said.
And he was right: It was okay.
Except when I read the novel just six months ago, it was a gut-wrenching experience. I even cried. Twice. The tragedy of childhood betrayal and mixed-up identity against the background of poverty and lowered circumstances was breathtaking. As was the palpably new sense of how horrible it would be like to live under the Taliban.
None of that is in the movie.
Well, actually, all of it is in the movie — all of the scenes. In making the adaptation, they didn’t monkey around with the story or the characterizations. There’s only one scene I noticed missing from the book, and I have to agree that it could be cut. (Although given a later scene that’s in the movie, I suspect they shot that earlier one as well.) But what’s left out, somehow, is the impact. Some things just don’t translate to other media.
A notable example: To get out of Afghanistan when the Russians and then the Taliban movie in, the boy and his father and several others have to be transported across the border in the belly of a fuel tanker. We have that scene in the movie, but there’s no resonance: The boy gets into the tanker. His father tells him it will be all right. The boy says he can’t breath. To distract him and provide what comfort he can, his father has him turn on the small iridescent light on his wristwatch and recite a poem. Next scene: They are in India.
This is pretty much the form the scene takes in the novel. Except Khaled Hosseini is able to convey the lingering, choking, searing stench of fuel, and the utter darkness of the tank. Film can’t do smell (although fiction can), and film can’t do darkness (although fiction can). When the boy looks at his watch, we see a closeup of a boy looking at his watch; there’s no context because there’s no way to see deeper in the frame. The novel isn’t limited by frames. The book, a seemingly sightless medium, offers greater vision.
Sadly, I don’t think they’ve done anything wrong in this movie. It just doesn’t make a statement the way the novel does. The impact was lost in translation.
I’ve thought a lot about translation over the years. I remember reading “Ubu Roi” in French in college and wondering whether it just shouldn’t have been translated into English; no matter how hard one tries, a pun in French doesn’t work in English. (One of Pa Ubu’s recurring outbursts is “Merdre!” which makes a pun of “murder” and “shit.” In English, I’ve seen this translated as “Pschitt!” Which is just “shit” misspelled, and with none of the menace.) I wonder how far off the mark the translations of some of my favorite writers, Kafka and Rilke among them, must be. I remember translating “La Cancatrice Chauve” myself as part of my graduation obligations and wondering just how absurd my translation was. I remember one semester in particular raising the question of translation with several different professors, all of whom gave what amounts to the stock answer: While a translation is not as good as the original, you usually get a fair amount.
I hope that’s true. And if I had to wait to learn German and Turkish and Spanish and Norwegian, I wouldn’t have read Kafka, Goethe, Kant, Rilke, Orhan Pamuk, Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or Knut Hamsun, to name just a few. Still, I would think it’s harder to translate from one language to another than from one medium to another, especially from novel to film, because film exists in the universal language of sight. And yet here we have a powerful, wrenching novel, faithfully translated into a film that, finally, is just okay.
My friend Doug — he of Doug’s Reading List and the only modern explorer any of us will ever know — was in town last week from the lower provinces of Patagonia or wherever his latest trek has taken him. You may recall that Doug, who is a reader for the ages, ejected all his thousands of books several years ago because they couldn’t fit onto a boat or a motorcycle. Now he and his wife, fellow adventurer Stephanie, have invested in a Kindle 2. I have seen the Kindle 2 and admire its functionality. But, as with print newspapers, it has proved difficult to break my addiction. I love books — not just reading them, but holding them and turning their pages and admiring their papery feeling and their floral aroma of decaying pulp. I also like having them on shelves in bookcases throughout my house and my office where I can see them and, let’s admit it, where others can see them. I check out the books in others’ homes and I like to see them checking mine out too.
But now I’m overbooked. Either that, or under-bookcased. All of our eight bookcases at home (one in office, three in kids’ rooms, one in bedroom, three in living room) are overstuffed with books and I pledged to my wife that we were done adding bookcases. And I’ve been unable to purge myself of any of these books because of the painful memory of my senior year in college when I sold my books back to the college bookstore because I needed the money. My favorite professor caught me in the act and said sadly, “Monsieur Wochner, you are selling your books?” It was heartbreaking. And stupid — because over the years I wound up buying most of them again at full price. I now know: When you’re a playwright, you might have further need some day of “Seven Plays” by Sam Shepard, and books like it. Since then, I’ve lived in fear that the book I part with will be the book I’ll need. Having a Kindle 2 might help with that; my purchases would be digital files on Amazon.com.
But… what if Amazon.com goes out of business in my lifetime?
And what about after my lifetime? I like to think my books will find future readers. Who will read my future digitized Amazon library? Probably no one.
Here’s something that I wonder if having clear bookcases — so I could actually see the spines of the books — might help. Last night I was reading Kafka by Robert Crumb and David Zane Mairowitz. Crumb provides wonderful illustrations to summaries of Kafka’s great works, with introductory-level biographical text by Mairowitz. Recently on this blog, a friend suggested that I get this and read it, and I almost did buy it two weeks ago at my local comics store. Then I stumbled upon it in the last stack of unread books from last summer’s San Diego Comic Con. So I had already bought it and completely forgot. I dived right into it two nights ago and was thoroughly enjoying it and was surprised, given that I’m a fan of both Kafka and Crumb, that I hadn’t already bought it when it first came out, in 2004. As it was, some of it seemed familiar, but I just figured I’d seen chapters in Weirdo or other magazines with Crumb work.
I Tweeted a tiny rave about the book today and resolved to write an appreciation here tonight. In so doing, I Googled for images and found this. First thought: “Crumb did two books about Kafka? He must be a huge fan!” Second thought: “This is an earlier edition of the same book.” The cover looked hauntingly familiar. As in, familiar from my bookcases. I went to the “K” section of the first living room bookcase, moved aside two stacks of books, and found “Introducing Kafka” by David Zane Mairowitz and Robert Crumb right where I now thought it would be. The same contents, but in a 1994 First Edition from Kitchen Sink Press. So I’ve now bought and read this book twice (and almost bought it thrice). That’s the downside. The upside: It’s been a great first read — twice. Because in the 15-year interim I’d forgotten I’d read it.
(By the way, the Introducing Kafka cover shown here has a slightly different title layout at the top than my first edition, meaning it must be a later edition. Proving that there’s still money to be made in Crumb and Kafka, if not Mairowitz.
End note: My Google investigations turn up yet another Kafka book illustrated by Robert Crumb and with text by David Zane Mairowitz. This one is called R. Crumb’s Kafka, “with text by David Zane Mairowitz.” I’m thinking this is the same book. (And given the title, I’m guessing it’s Mr. Mairowitz’s least favorite edition.) The cover is different, but they’re right when they say you can’t judge a book by its cover.
I’m not falling for it again.