Franz Kafka In Stornoway

5 10 2010

One day, when Kafka and his Hebrew teacher, Friedrich Thieberger were looking out over Old Town Square from a window of Oppelt House, Kafka pointed out his secondary school in Kinsky Palace; what they could see of the university where he had studied law; and, a little farther away, the location of his office. The writer twice gestured in a small circumference, condensing his entire existential space. “This small circle contains my whole life,” he told Thieberger. Prague had become both cage and refuge, a place that protected him from the natural world, but also a place that the writer changed in his dreams. We see how Kafka slowly creates the mesh, weaves the web, lays the foundations of his mysterious literary architecture.”

– Memories of Kafka

Franz Kafka was not being entirely truthful with his Hebrew teacher when he credited the “small circle” of central Prague with defining the essence of his life and work.

In fact, the pointy-faced Czech gloom merchant was haunted all his life by a crucial interlude he spent in Stornoway in 1911. The landscape that truly shaped Kafka’s weltenschaung and whose bleakness suffused every aspect of his oeuvre was not that of Staromeste Namesti, Wenceslas Square or the Charles Bridge, but the Star Inn, Perceval Square and Charlie Morrison’s. Oh yus.

As any raincoat-wearing indie poseur from the early 80s could tell you, Kafka was employed in Prague as an assessor for the Workers’ Accident Insurance company. What is less well known is that in October 1911 he was despatched to Stornoway to investigate a particularly intractable case; Tolsta Chaolais fish smoker and Free Church precentor John Angus “Psalmsa” Macgregor had woken up one morning to find himself transformed into a giant kipper. Unable to work, and finding it increasingly difficult to avoid being eaten by people at breakfast time, Psalmsa had submitted a large insurance claim to Kafka’s company.

In the assessment interview, Psalmsa produced an extremely ripe guga and offered it to Kafka as an “incentive” to write a favourable report. Kafka was overcome by the fumes, collapsed and had to be sent to the old sanatorium on Oliver’s Brae for several weeks to recuperate. The poor cove was never the same after that and his early death in Austria in 1924 – long ascribed to tuberculosis – is now believed to be the result of long term lung damage sustained in this incident.

Even after his release from the sanatorium, Kafka was unfit to travel and had to hang about Stornoway for the rest of the Winter. On the meagre accommodation allowance provided by his employers, he took lodgings in a disused fish offal boiler in a back yard off Inaclete road. His landlady did not permit lodgers to remain in their rooms during the day, and so Franz Kafka was forced to wander the streets of Stornoway daily from 5am to 11pm.

In the depths of Winter, this  meant an atmosphere of continual darkness, howling gales and driving rain, with the sinister shadow of the Castle looming in the low cloud over the town. The monstrous towers of the gasworks and the fish mart dwarfed Kafka as he traversed the desolate streets, closing in on him and creating a sense of insignificance and alienation such as he’d never experienced in Prague.

The Lanntair wasn’t invented yet, so the only refuge a sensitive soul could take from the weather was in church services, prayer meetings and wakes. With several religious denominations to choose from, Kafka attached himself to the Seceders. His reasons for doing so were initially prosaic; they had longer services than everybody else, and their emphasis on the burning torments of Hell made him feel a bit warmer on a cold night.

Immersed in Stornoway’s harsh meteorological and spiritual mileu it was inevitable that Kafka’s work would take a darker turn. Before arriving on the island, the author had been on the verge of completing his debut magnum opus; “My Lovely Book of Sunny Stories”, featuring Mr Chuckles, an irrepressibly cheery teddy bear who skips around dispensing flowers to all the happy animals in Giggleland. But one freezing night, after a particularly long tigh adhradh in Steinish at which the 4-hour improvised prayer had been uninspired, the scones mouldy, and the tea weak as fleek, Kafka returned to Inaclete road and consigned the manuscript for “My Lovely Book of Sunny Stories” to the fire.

Seating himself at the old fishbox he used for a writing desk, by the light of a foul-smelling cruisgean, Kafka set about developing the seminal works for which he is now remembered. The drafts he produced while in Stornoway included:

Mehhagmorphosis – in which some cove wakes up in the morning to find that he has turned into a giant sheep. (Kafka did not want to use Psalmsa’s kipper experience directly in his fiction for fear of legal action, and so considered turning his protagonist into a number of other things. Titles considered and rejected included “Midgiemorphosis”, “Maragmorphosis” and “Murdomorphosis”. The last of these was very nearly chosen, but dropped when it turned out it was already the nickname of a cove who hung about the Crit all day asking for change).

The (Sheepdog) Trial – in which Dileas K, an unassuming Border collie, finds himself facing disqualification from the Barvas Agricultural Show for an unspecified contravention of ISDS rules at the shed. Nobody will explain the nature of  his alleged crime to him, probably because he’s a dog.

The Castle – in which a stranger arrives in town, having been summoned by a mysterious bureaucracy known only as “The Amenity Trust” to survey Lewis Castle. He looks at it and tells them it’s falling down, then spends the rest of the novel trying to collect a massive feasibility study fee off them.

When Kafka returned to Prague in the spring of 1912, his suitcase was full of marags, duff, sgadan sailte and and bobban socks. With no room for his manuscripts, he left them in the care of his friend and literary executor, Macs Brodbay.

“My dear Macs”, wrote Kafka to Brodbay at his literary salon/croft in Vatisker, “I’ve carried out a retrospective analysis of my work and tried to weigh its literary merit as objectively as possible. My conclusion is that if I leave the manuscipts with you I’ll be able to squeeze in a geansaidh for the old man, 3 beannags for the cailleach and an extra bag of Craggan’s biscuits. So you hang onto the books and if the peats is damp this year you can chuck them in the Rayburn to get the fire goeen. They’re fleekeen rubbish anyway. This writeen carry on is no for me an am goeen back to the insurance when a get home. Chearaidh, cove. Franz (cough).”

Luckily Macs Brodbay had an excellent peat bank with a good supply of dry caorans, and never got around to burning Kafka’s manuscripts. They sat in his byre for many years, getting a bit mouldy and being chewed by the odd cow until, in 1926, Brodbay attended a Skoda Tractors Open Day at the Gress fank. There, he persuaded a gullible Czech sales rep to swap him a brand new 4-cylinder  HT-30 for a rotting feed bag containing the semi-masticated remains of Kafka’s works.

And so Franz Kafka’s manuscripts finally made their way back to Prague. Some amadan there decided to publish them, but discovered that Kafka’s language in the manuscripts was an incomprehensible melange of German, Czech, biblical Gaelic and extremely profane Stornowegian. To make the works accessible to a Central European readership, the publisher had to translate them back into proper German  and excise all identifiable Outer Hebridean references, otherwise nobody would have known what the fleek was going on.

That – and not the fact that we made it all up chust now –  is why few are aware of Kafka’s Stornoway connections today. But rumour has it that the translator missed a few SY words and references here and there. So who knows? Read the cove’s books very carefully and you might still spot the odd one that got through…