An Essay by Marc Estrin, author of Insect Dreams
Most people don't like cockroaches; others are equally wary of Kafka. I love
both. The bugs were my playmates, growing up in the Bronx, and it was Kafka who
snatched away my reading virginity when I was sixteen: The Trial was the
first "real" book I ever read.
It was out of these idiosyncracies that I wrote Insect Dreams: The Half Life of Gregor Samsa.
Kafka's Gregor is quite different from mine a man turned inexplicably into vermin, alienated from all others. His tale is briefly told in "The Metamorphosis", a short story which challenged the world in 1915, and continues to do so. But it seemed to me a shame to "waste" this remarkable being, to let him shrivel and die so quickly. So I just nabbed him --- stole the character out from under his couch via some shady dealings on the part of his housekeeper, and threw him into the world to see what he might pull off. We know from Kafka that Gregor-the-human was a sweet man, supporting his family, looking after his sister, intelligent, hard-working, dutiful. I imagined he'd have the same qualities as a large, talking cockroach.
(I must inject here that Kafka does not explicitly call Gregor a cockroach. Supreme artist that he was, he labeled him only an ungeheueres Ungeziefer. Only! Un...un...the awful rhythmic pounding of not-ness. The adjective ungeheuer means "giant", "enormous", "immense" --- but with unearthly overtones ---"monstrous." Ungeziefer is a generic term, a collective noun denoting all sorts of undesireable insects --- pests, plague, vermin --- all beasts surrounded by taboo. Gregor's size, too, makes a difference, and brings us back to ungeheuer. Would not the appearance of even a baby bunny, twelve feet long, drive us to meditate or seek protection? How much more so with an already repulsive beast. Deep identity becomes transformed by simple size: it is not easy to apply normal thought to abnormal dimension. To make it worse, Kafka demanded that Gregor never be illustrated --- so as to leave him entirely to the reader's horrified imagination. Ungeheures Ungeziefer: what a curse for the translator! Nevertheless, to engage him more fully in the world, I had to make a decision, and do some verboten description. "Cockroach" had been a common translation, so cockroach he became. Many benefits accrued, including the central cockroachism of the book: thigmotaxis --- the saving principle of the bomb.)
A cockroach he became, huge, talking, intelligent, with an ethical agenda, different from all other people in his world, so different that he might provide an angle for us to see things differently, through mosaic eyes, as it were, with hardness outside and softness within, instead of our vice versa.
Differentness is one of the things Insect Dreams is about: white America's attitude toward "the Other." For a melting pot --- or the more recent "salad bowl" --- we're not so good at differentness. In the historical memory of Native Americans, African-Americans, the Irish in their time, the Japanese, the Jews --- and now Middle Easterners --- "melting" takes on a more ominous resonance. Gregor --- the ultimate "Other" --- was sensitive to this issue, ready to put his money where his mouthparts were. And this because Gregor so deeply loved his new home in the New World. He loved the iconoclastic energy of his boss, Charles Ives, composer and insurance magnate, the ultimate American. He loved the intelligence and the striving. No wonder he so willingly joined FDR's Brain Trust. In Vienna he was a mere freak in a freakshow, but here, he could be a phenomenon, a bringer of light.
Unfortunately, the Einsteinian light of 1905 was turned to heat forty years later, as Science marched on, transforming. The other major theme of Insect Dreams is the downside of this dance, the irrationality of the rational, what we may now call, simply, in all its forms --- "the bomb". The story of the Manhattan Project, the final setting of Insect Dreams is, in my opinion, the culmination and apotheosis of the last six hundred years of human history. We've gone on from there, and are now planning the militarization of space. But July 16th, 1945 was the moment which grew ineluctably from all moments since the fourteenth century, and has defined and projected all moments since itself. We are now living in the shadow not of Hiroshima, but of the 100 foot bomb tower at Alamogordo, the unicorn antenna of our race.
Cockroaches fly. They can, they do. Gregor flew over here one night direct from Prague to my innocent brain in Burlington, Vermont. Three weeks earlier, my wife and I, playing tourist, had visited Kafka's grave, and I left the poor guy a note (along with all the other notes thrust into the gravel) inviting him to come visit if he got a chance. We have a nice guestroom, I wrote, where he wouldn't have to sleep next to his father (whom he feared and hated. This is a case for the Afterlife Child Protection Services!). Three weeks later, there he was, or rather Gregor, his most famous emissary, with a complete story outline on a platter. All I had to do was the historical research to fill in the details.
So Gregor came to America. After orientation in a Viennese sideshow, he lands in New York, atop its highest skyscraper, the Woolworth Building, and like Kafka's Karl in Amerika, finds a job as an elevator boy, and becomes involved in many aspects of prohibition New York. He meets a woman, falls in love, and discovers the amorous disadvantage of six legs. Working for Ives, he invents the science of risk management, which lands him a job in Roosevelt's White House, privy to key events during the depression and the New Deal. As the ultimate Other, he advocates annoyingly for Jewish refugees and Japanese-Americans. To get him out of his hair, FDR sends him off to the wasteland --- as risk management consultant to the Manhattan Project. It is there he meets his fate --- and ours.
Kafka's stayover in Burlington seemed a free-will gift: "Here's the roach --- do with him what you will." Maybe this is rationalization. Maybe I just stole him. In any case, my Gregor is not Kafka's. I have this fear that at three in the morning a black busload of Kafka police and German professors are going to pound on my door to take me away. The charge? Chutzpah. "Kafka's Gregor would never..." "Kafka thought this, but you say that..."
But I think poor Gregor never got an even break. He was too nice a guy to just shrivel up dead under a couch. Your honors, I just wanted to give him a second chance. I plead innocent.
I will say that if you haven't, or not in a very long time, done so, first go read "The Metamorphosis". It's just a short story. Then forget about it, hide it from your children, and enjoy Insect Dreams.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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