Investigations of a Dog and Other Creatures by Franz Kafka
Translated from the German by Michael Hofmann
New Directions, 2017
244 pages / Amazon
The back cover of Investigations of a Dog and Other Creatures (New Directions, 2017) states that inside are some of Franz Kafka’s best stories in “a masterful new translation by Michael Hofmann.” Displaying Hofmann’s extraordinary attention to voice, syntax, punctuation, and even paragraphing, the new renderings alone will be attractive to anyone who has already read some of these 42 stories elsewhere. But the book does more than give us familiar narratives in renewed language. Although fictions containing Kafka tropes (nightmare moods, bureaucratic tangles) are present, Investigations seems meant to allow an alternative encounter with the author. The selection turns us toward peripheral but complementary tales of alienation and uncertainty— including many that feature odd theriomorphic beings and other nonhuman characters, which upset the boundary between human and nonhuman.
“The pieces here are outlying,” Hofmann says in his foreword to the book, suggesting the works are “perhaps the outer, wilder ripples…of Kafka’s disturbance.” Written between 1911 and 1924, none of the stories were published while the author was alive; “The Metamorphosis” and “In the Penal Colony,” two popular longer tales a reader might expect to find in any Kafka collection, are not in Investigations. Instead, the title story and “The Burrow” are the dominant works, occupying about a third of the book. In these two stories, first-person animal narrators obsessively tell us about their greatest concerns and anxieties—the first fixating on questions about meaning in the dog world, the second examining and doubting the safety of its underground home. The animals’ linguistic excursions are lengthy and repetitive, but the stories read as abbreviated, unmastered studies. Neither story has an ending; the reader’s duty is to take them up as they are and recognize that their value comes partially from their relationship with other fictions in the collection. Some of the briefest tales, however, efficiently offer up full, stand-alone narratives with no ambiguity about authorial vision. For example, the trim 11-line story “A Commentary” seems quite finished and even bears a number of the conventions that qualify a work of fiction for that overused –esque adjective: When the story’s lost and panicked human narrator tells a policeman he can’t find “the way,” the policeman responds, “Then give it up, give it up” and turns away to laugh. But despite the formal disparities among the outlier pieces in Investigations, they speak to each other, their preoccupations accreting to make a whole and unified collection.
Many human characters in Investigations live against remote or unseen powers and dangers. They are endlessly recovering their selfhood—or in their resignation, they are recovering from selfhood, tolerating certain confinements and privations because they are estranged from the rules. “On the Matter of Our Laws,” a narrative about a town’s relationship with an invisible political power, begins, “Our laws are unfortunately not widely known: they are the secret of the small group of nobles who govern us. We are convinced that these old laws are scrupulously observed, but it remains an extremely tormenting thing to be governed by laws one does not know about.” The laws “can only be guessed at” because they “were entrusted to the nobility as a secret.” And more frighteningly, “Perhaps the laws we try to guess at don’t exist at all.” In “Our Little Town,” an affectless, voiceover-like narration provides a similar description of a government and the diminished selves it controls. The speaker says, “While we do from time to time get news of border wars, we hear almost nothing from the capital, we citizens…. We in our little town are content to abide by instructions that are issued in the capital city. For hundreds of years no political change has occurred that was instigated by us, the citizens.” The impassive narrator of “Building the Great Wall of China,” on the other hand, has some agency: He must help complete the construction project of the story’s title—but under orders of a ruler who might have been dead for centuries.
While these stories about asymmetrical power relationships describe collective problems, most other works in Investigations show humans in private quandaries. Repeatedly, characters confront blacked-out epistemological givens, finding themselves without basic orienting facts about their activities. They often can’t adequately or surely place themselves in time, as we see in opening lines like “I was visiting the dead” and “There was a vulture that hacked at my feet.” They don’t know or care to reveal details about themselves, such as what they do for a living: They are simply “in commerce” or they make “business decisions” or they have “business conversations.” The narrator of “The Advocates” is one of the collection’s vaguest and most lost. “It was very doubtful that I had any advocates,” the story begins. “I was unable to discover any exact information, the faces all looked discouraging…. I couldn’t even establish if we were in a court building or not…. But if it wasn’t a court, what was I doing looking for an advocate here?” These questions—Where am I? What am I doing?—are to be taken as inevitable and unanswerable; no investigation has a conclusive end.
And the towns, buildings, and homes that contain Kafka’s characters can be as antagonistic as the powers that govern them and the confusion that stalls them. If the citizens in “On the Matter of Our Laws,” “Our Little Town,” and “Building the Great Wall of China” are too far outside to know the rules, the narrator of the comical “My Business” is too far inside to enjoy the safety of the rules. In this story, the difficulty is that the narrator’s office has thin walls and an eavesdropping businessman named Harras works in the office next door. “Harras doesn’t need a telephone,” says the narrator, “he uses mine, he has slid his sofa against the wall and is listening, meanwhile I have to run to the telephone when it rings, take onerous decisions, perform great feats of persuasion, but above all, throughout the whole process, I am involuntarily reporting to Harras through the wall.” With predictable indirectness about vocations, the narrator goes on to imply that Harras, who minds more business than his own, uses the information he hears through the wall to steal leads from the narrator.
Why do these narratives about human troubles belong among “The Burrow,” “Investigations of a Dog,” and other creature stories? The answer emerges in part from the similarity between the animal narrators’ situations and those of the humans in the collection. Dilating the paranoia of “My Business,” but doing so in a mood of dread and queasiness instead of humor, “The Burrow” is told by a ground-dwelling representative of two of the collection’s connective themes: It is both in thrall to an invisible force and an occupant of an uncomfortable space. The unidentified narrator begins the story by praising its burrow. “Perhaps a thousand paces from [the false entrance],” says the creature, “concealed under a removable flap of moss, is the actual entrance to the burrow, it’s as secure as anything in this world can be; of course, someone can happen to tread on the moss or push through it, and then my burrow is wide open, and whoever wants to can walk in and destroy it for all time….” The story continues in this way, with paranoia overwhelming the narrator’s confidence that the burrow is secure. “Nor is it only external foes that threaten me,” the animal says, “there are also some within the earth itself. I have never seen them, but I have heard stories about them…. [You] hear the scratch of their claws just below you in the ground, which is their element, and already you are lost. It makes no difference here that you are in your home, because it’s really their dwelling.” This peculiar form of homelessness becomes a circular torment for the narrator. The animal exhaustively describes imagined and relived scenes in which it exits the burrow and cannot reenter because of the risk of revealing the doorway. And then there is a disruptive hissing noise coming through the walls of the burrow. “I require silence in my passageways,” says the creature. The volume of the hissing escalates and so does the animal’s madness, until it is convinced of its doom. “All this,” it says, “just betokens something I always had cause to fear, and should always have made preparations for: someone is coming.” Neither in nor out is right, and no decision can make the burrow more habitable. Sharing the major predicaments of the men and women who live aboveground in the other stories in Investigations, the burrowing creature is more than an anthropomorphized animal—it is an animalizing animal.
The other talking beast in the collection, the canine narrator of “Investigations of a Dog,” is the book’s most conscious creature and is more antidote than analogue. As verbose as the burrowing animal, the dog says, “Withdrawn, solitary, entirely taken up with my small, hopeless, but—to me—indispensable inquiries, that’s how I live.” His meditations on his species and his experiences, as well as his notions about science, suggest an elevated intellect and spirit. And Kafka gives the dog a past, which few other characters in the collection have. The narrator explains that as a pup he saw seven dogs in an orgiastic music-making ritual. Prompted by his confusion and alarm at the dogs’ performance, their “sin,” he starts his quest. “It all began with that concert,” he says. “It was then that I embarked on my investigations…. I began to study what keeps us dogs nourished.” Sure that “all science, the totality of all questions and all answers, lies with us dogs,” he moves on from this subject to an exploration of fabled flying dogs, which he himself hasn’t yet seen. Why do they fly? The narrator responds with an aphoristic remark that seems to stand as the conceptual center of the collection: “One begins to seek causes, to stammer together a kind of etiology—yes, one begins, and of course will never get beyond the beginning. But it’s something—a beginning.” In this fragment, this beginning of a story, the narrator does not sniff out answers to his questions about the flying dogs or any other subject. But he is an exemplary seeker, whose erudition implies that investigation is the only useful response to an answerless existence. He is after all enlightened enough to know the rules of his species and to understand that his own occupation is philosophizing and hypothesizing.
Elsewhere in Investigations of a Dog, animals consistently cause problems when in the orbit of human characters. An improbably large mole evades two researchers who want to study it; a hunter falls off a cliff and dies while pursuing chamois; a lamb-cat’s value as an heirloom keeps its owner from slaughtering it; a student fails to train horses. In these instances, the animals are distant or anonymous. But in the affectionate “In Our Synagogue,” Kafka brings us much closer to an animal, gives it a world that in itself is obstructive. A creature “about the size of a marten” stubbornly inhabits the narrator’s place of worship. It has a light turquoise coat, maybe from “the dust and mortar that have caught in the fur.” It hangs over the women’s section of the congregation, where, “with visible glee, it hooks itself fast to the metalwork, stretches out and looks down into the prayer room; its exposed position seems to give it pleasure….” And “the long neck, the triangular face, the almost horizontally protuberant teeth, on the upper lip a line of long—longer than the teeth—evidently very spiny bristles…can indeed give one a turn.” But although it has a menacing observation routine and a disturbing appearance, the interloper is harmless and knowable:
The animal steers clear of people, it’s shyer than a forest animal, its ties are exclusively to the building, and its tragedy lies in the fact that the building it has chosen is a synagogue, which at times can be a very animated place. If communication with the animal had been possible, then we would have been able to offer it the assurance that the community in our little highland town is shrinking by the year, and is already having difficulties finding the funds to keep up the building. It is quite possible that in a while our synagogue will have become a granary or something of the sort, and that the animal will find the peace it so painfully lacks now.
Bringing us further into the creature’s emotional intricacies, the narrator goes on to say, “It’s only when we pray that it appears. Alarmed by the noise, it wants to see what’s going on, it wants to remain alert, to be free, capable of flight; fear causes it to emerge…and then it doesn’t dare retreat until the service is over.” The noise, we’re told, “doesn’t concern it at all,” so why the fear? “Is it the memory of times long gone, or a presentiment of times to come?” the narrator wonders. “Does this old animal perhaps know more than the three generations that foregather in the synagogue each time?” The narrator doesn’t offer answers. What’s clear is that, like other human and nonhuman beings in Investigations, the animal has an uneasy connection to its home. It is singular, though, because its stare returns unease to humans and because its dilemma calls out for the narrator’s empathy. If the human-focused works in Investigations show characters considering the questions Where am I? and What am I doing?, “In Our Synagogue” and some other stories about human-animal interaction present human characters with the question How do nonhuman worlds meet with my own?
“Blumfeld, an Elderly Bachelor” is a truncated story of a staid man who rejects the third question. It begins with a close, sensitively wrought third-person narration that leads us through the titular character’s thoughts about his need for a companion, specifically a dog, as he prepares to enter his apartment. “As Blumfeld climbed the stairs,” the narrator says, “he thought to himself, as he had quite often lately, that this completely solitary life was burdensome indeed, the fact that he had to slink up these six flights of stairs to arrive in his empty room.” A dog would be “diverting and, above all, loyal and grateful.” Speaking in Blumfeld’s idiom, the narrator says, “Admittedly, a dog has his drawbacks too.” (Curiously, the deferential “admittedly” appears six more times in this story.) Dogs are dirty; they are carriers of fleas and disease. “However much Blumfeld would like a dog just at the moment,” the narrator continues, Blumfeld would rather be by himself “than be discommoded by an old dog…. So Blumfeld will remain alone.” But the bachelor is not alone now. Before going into his apartment, he hears an odd noise from inside. When he opens his door, he sees that “two little blue and white striped rubber balls are bouncing side by side on the floor; when one hits the ground, the other is in mid-air, and they play tirelessly together.” Rather than stimulating or comforting Blumfeld, this visitation “makes a faintly disagreeable impression on him”—so the bouncing balls, which behave a lot like dogs, will not become companions.
After a night of sleeping poorly while the balls bounce around under his bed, Blumfeld locks them in his wardrobe. He leaves his apartment and asks two neighbor girls to go inside and take the balls away. And with some relief, he goes off to his job. In a three-page paragraph, the narrator, more removed now, moves us out of scene and into Blumfeld’s thoughts about the factory where he works. For the following eight pages, two idling juniors at the factory have Blumfeld’s attention, and we read nothing more about what the man has left behind at his apartment. The frustratingly incomplete narrative ends with the juniors fighting a servant for a broom. Perhaps the finished piece would have shown Blumfeld change, decide to take the bouncing balls back. But as published in Investigations, the story leaves us to judge the bachelor only by his morose reaction to the fantastical irruption in his home. And yet “Blumfeld” is essential to the collection. It’s a portrait of a human who refuses to be fascinated by the nonhumans in his midst—and as such it hands the reader a directive about how not to read this book.
By giving words and worlds to animals, and by productively placing nonhumans among the repertoire of human characters’ problems, Investigations is as much a new way into Kafka as it is a companion to philosophical works dealing with animality. Read alongside Jakob von Uexküll, Derrida, Agamben, et al., Investigations asks the reader this question: Is the human the premier animal? You won’t find an answer in the book (because there are no answers here), but you’ll find a beginning. It’s something.