A burrow offers security and comfort, and Kafka found both in his sister’s tiny house on the Golden Lane.
Ottla – his sister – had rented it so she could spend time with her lover and not be bothered by parents and comments. Her lover was a Christian and ready to go to war. Time was precious.
However, she rarely had opportunities other than the weekends, so she offered Franz the use of the tiny house for most of that time. And use it he did, though he never stayed the night.
Through fall, winter and spring Kafka wrote a whole book of short stories. For one single block of time, it was one of his most creative periods.
When I visited, even under Communist rule, it had been converted to a book store. Of course (which he would have appreciated) there were no books by Kafka for sale. Today he is displayed in the windows.
It was only when I went thorough the small rooms, and looked out the window into The Stag Moat, that I realized how important the house would become in my novel about Kafka. It was cozy – even with the space cramped by tourists. It had been little altered and I easily imagined Kafka looking through the same glass and walking through the same doorways. No doubt stooping because he was tall. Research met reality.
One of the last stories Kafka wrote, during his final year in Berlin, was called The Burrow. A version exists and is published, though a longer version is supposed to be among his ‘missing’ papers.
In it, a tiny animal keeps incessantly burrowing to keep away from an enemy. A vague noise convinces the animal to burrow deeper, and deeper, and deeper.
Something Kafka himself attempted to do.
In my novel, Kafka In The Castle, I fill in the missing entries of his actual diaries. There are many days to fill, as he either did not write during these days, or he destroyed the record.
In these entries, the chill of winter begins to settle over the chill of his life.
10 December 1916
My father is so suspicious, he rarely suspects what is really going on around him. He has no idea that Ottla has rented this house, or that I come here like a thief in the night. He would think that it is another plot against him. And, he is right about the plots – but he’ll never realize they are done solely for defensive purposes. Which is a shame, for he fully appreciates self-preservation.
Of course, even I do not fully know Ottla’s reasons for renting this tiny house. I suspect a young man is involved, but I will keep my queries to myself. It is not the place to bring Felice – but is nice enough to set out on new adventures. I’ve had adventures in less suitable surroundings. The shop girls. The hotels with their chilly rooms.
12 December 1916
Max wants me to publish more. He may even wish upon me the horror of his own proliferation. His novels, and stories, and all his comments and reviews about the “arts”. I do not tell him this, for I think he would be greatly offended, but much of the time my opinions do not even interest me.
14 December 1916
Overheard a woman talking to Max today – complained of being lonely. But what it sounded like to me was that she was only tired. She had children at home, family in the neighbourhood, and friends (obviously) whom she could talk to. Yet, she chooses to feel lonely. Yes, her husband is in the war, but a partial loss does not make one lonely. Perhaps alone – but that is entirely different. Being lonely is waking from a nightmare, and realizing there is no one to wake you.
Exercpt from: China Lily
Matzerath’s mother rarely shared her thoughts with anyone. She is as elusive now as when he was a small boy being raised within the shadow of the religious buildings where she still works as a cook. Bishops and abbots come and go, and red-robed Princes of the Church make their visits, for which she must dress appropriately – but she remains. At least Matzerath assumes she is still there, though he has not been back for five years.
Matzerath is small in stature and taken to be younger than he is. At thirteen he is treated as seven. He allows this because he finds there are more advantages then penalties. He knows far more than is expected of him, and avoids many pitfalls through the guile no one expects he has. He also achieves more than is expected from him, and is given much leeway for a child. Had his real age been obvious, he would be perceived as dim-witted. Because he is thought of as a child, he is considered gifted.
Matzerath’s mother is aware of how her son is tolerated – she even encourages his guile. He is treated better than most children, whose father is absent months at a time sailing the North Sea.
Matzerath is also getting an education of sorts, which is generally restricted to the children of nobles and the wealthy. He has learned how to read and write, along with the rudiments of mathematics and geography. He also pokes his nose into the stables, and the smithy, and the carpenters, picking up their basic skills.
He follows his own mother with interest, and can chose, prepare and present many of the dishes she serves at the Monastery. For the notables at the cathedral, and other clergy, she is expected to produce more sophisticated fare. Matzerath has even acquired some of these skills, but a puny child is forbidden to appear near the high table. He does get to nibble the leavings but notes – as he also does at the Monastery – that very little is ever left.
Matzerath would have been content to stay in this arduous life seasoned with episodes of interest and learning, but his elusive nature is discovered by a visiting bishop.
The Bishop is a militant with evangelical frenzy. He is intent upon forming a Children’s Crusade to march to the Holy Land. Matzerath is not sure what this means, though he gathers it will offer an opportunity to leave the confines of the town and local villages where he has spent his life. His mother is better informed.
Even though the last Children’s Crusade happened generations ago, and the Church proclaims it was a wondrous act for the Glory of God, she is fully aware that most of the children never came back. And that the Holy Land is still lost to the grip of heathens. The murmurs from the Monastery and the high table reveal this bishop to be a renegade and unsound in judgment. His ‘new’ crusade is predicted to be a disaster. His abilities to lead it are a joke. However, he does have the ear of the Pope, and his family has much wealth to give to the Church.
Matzerath does not possess an abundant affection for his mother – not for anyone – but he realizes that regardless of the amount of work she extracts from him, she generally does what is best for him. He pays attention to her instructions and her observations and her warnings. She also encourages him to tell her what he sees and hears. As he becomes older, she also wants to know what he thinks about the things he sees. Matzerath realizes she is using him as a spy, but he does not mind. He knows his mother sometimes manipulates the information he brings for her own well-being, but these rewards also come to him.
Matzerath heeds the warnings his mother gives about some of the priests and monks and their interest in boys. He discovers this himself upon a couple of occasions, and even satisfies one priest just to see what it is like. He shares this with his mother because he knows she sometimes does the same.