|"Kofko in My Hand"|
Written by Elisha Porat translated to English by Alan Sacks
This morning, much to my surprise, I felt some of my strength of old return. The slight blurring of my vision, the side effect of a disorienting dizziness, eased as my medication relaxed its grip on me.
Reinvigorated, I approached the bookcase, pulled out some of the tightly packed volumes and blew the dust from them. At last, exhausted, I held Kafka in my hands. Though it had been quite some time since I had turned to his works, the small, hard-bound edition, with the Hebrew letters set in the old-fashioned type of Yeshuron Keshet and printed by Belet Gavshushi.
Just a few days earlier, I heard the famous Czech poet,the one who would visit Israel one day, pronounce Kafka's name. Kafko, he said, and then again, Kafko.
Suddenly, this alien renunciation seemed to me just right, seven times better and a thousand times more faithful. It was, indeed, a significant change. I close my eyes and echo his voice for myself. Kafko or Kafka, Kafka versus Kafko. When the Czech poet intoned the name in his Slavic accented language, it sounded like Yosefko. Really, Yosefko, Yosko, Yoshko, Yoskof.
The name was terribly familiar to me, something I had known years ago, as though it had been printed on the kibbutz work roster of giant Bristol pages that could not be folded, pages so heavy they pulled out the tiny tacks holding them to the perforated wooden board. Yosek. K. Yoshko K. How easy it was to pronounce the name. I already liked Kofko, the new editions should print it Kafkoh and no other way. That is, the final vowel had to be embedded in the last consonant, but it was important that the suffix appear Hebrew and not western Slavic. Kahfkoh, which you could read as Kafkah or hear as Kafko, however the spirit moved you. A crackling good name that worked either way, two names suddenly merging, until I make a mistake and say, Yosef Kafka, thinking of his protagonist by that strange name instead of little Franz, which has simply escaped my memory.
There I stand at my bookcase, which exudes the aroma of damp wood. Kafko in my hand, I compose in my mind a letter to father. No version of this letter will ever be published. Kofko's writing, bewildering topic-switching prose, sets my teeth on edge. It sometimes resembles the fitful flight of some insect cautiously weaving 70 circles around an open flower. A lyrical turn occasionally flashes past in fear of an impending withdrawal. This is indeed timid writing, the sort that fears the direct approach. Here and there, a its courage and escapes. I fully expect that in the wake of this breach (on a small scale, of course, for he knows nothing of all-out attacks on his pages), occupation divisions will tramp forward to exploit the breakthrough, clean out the remaining outposts and establish a bridgehead.
But no. That is not for him. He instantly retreats to the safe shelter of the previous sentence. From there, he may sally forth in secret and once more try to reach his goal. His prose is self-defeating. Sentences imprison themselves within a multitude of bonds and bounds. It comes close to what they taught me in the army years and years ago. One foot on the ground and one in the air. While the pinning force seizes the commanding high ground, the assault unit scouts the enemy to surprise him in his trenches. Perhaps even this definition is not truly accurate. But what has accuracy to do with literature? One step forward and two steps back, that is how he fashions his advance. I pace before the book shelves, Kofko's book in my hand now open to the eye. We are writing the letter to father. Sentences race ahead, terrified, stooped, seeking shelter.
With inexplicable courage, bold passages suddenly surge forth and whole columns are swept forward. The whole manuscript advances, an essay of black letters striking violently across the front until my heart skips a beat with some strange fear of sinking into a black morass. But I have nothing to fear. The first step forward has already been made. Now everything has come to a halt, pausing, scanning the terrain. It is as though Kafko himself has leapt from the page, taking the lie of the land and telling himself, whoa, too fast; the assault columns must be stopped. He is already planning his next move, a double step back. Once again, I am thrown far from the open heart of the wound.
Good, after the advances, we seat ourselves, the two of us, before father. There is a certain obscurity here, but I am in no rush to clear it up. Whose father is it before whom we sit? Little, scared Franzy, who slips the letter into the post box and takes to his heels - is it his father? Or does each of us face his own father, handing him the letter in person?
I remembered his stern face when I finished my days of punishment and was allowed back into the house. I was very sorry when he passed on and mourned him for a long time. I wondered how Kofko, writing his letter, would conduct himself, whether he would need to read an original, heartfelt eulogy while his father's coffin was lowered into the grave.
Prague, the city masked in Kofko's stories, was not destroyed in the great war. The house stands where it has always stood. The river flows past, the old bridges still. It all suddenly becomes clear. His mysteries are solved. Young, energetic Kafka, destined to grow as old as Methusaleh, was in the habit of plunging into the chilly waters of the river. According to his friends, who remembered what they saw there, he swam the river in swift strokes. In the evening, returning refreshed and bursting with vitality, he would mobilize his paper heroes for the astounding strategy he had devised. One step forward and two steps back.
Can the lead sentence deny all the sentences to follow? How is it possible that a single clause can open or bar seven gates? Where can he hide, the trembling boy seeking refuge from his father's wrath? I am reminded of a boy, a childhood friend, who once accidentally broke the key to his parents' apartment. That was in the new neighborhood. The chain fell to the floor while the broken key remained stuck in the hole. Sweating from head to toe in fright, he tried to draw the broken part from the door. When he finally succeeded, his whole body was shaking. He laid the broken key at the base of the door, as though it had fallen of itself and shattered on the floor. Even the crack he had tried to patch with spit could not be seen. He crawled into the garden on the slope of the lawn and crouched in the dark of the bushes until his parents returned from work. Only in the black of night did he dare to come out and present himself as someone who had traveled a great distance. In his absence, the mangled corpse of the key had been found on the porch. The air was thick with suspicion.
Of course, I am no seer when I dip into my memories. There is no limit to fear of a father's wrath. Even on a little kibbutz, a boy dreads the rage of an angry father returning home after a long day of work. He kicks the broken key and upbraids his wife who, as we recall from Kofko, is the beloved mother. "Ptui, ptui, ptui," he spits out. "Why, tell me why he has abused your precious `jewelry' again. Would it help to throw him out of the house for a few days? Maybe this time he'll learn how to behave?"
In my bed at the hospital, I drafted countless letters to father. What attracted me was the detached, remote nature of it, the opportunity to hide behind the other side of the composition, quite unlike the stories and poems. I have written over the years. It is the yearnings laid bare and base desires that make a name for a piece. One can feel pain, even regret. In every important stage of my life, at every juncture, I have found myself facing him, composing my thoughts for him on a sheet of paper. On the one hand, I am glad he did not go through the terrible wars, worried sick for the safety of his children. On the other, I regret that he did not read my works or see his children grow up. I remember his final illness and my last visit to the hospital. It all comes back to me unexpectedly, the acrid odors, the hushed fears and panic-stricken voices.
"Give me another 10 years," I begged. "At least let me live as long as he did." I bargained passionately with the giver of life and death. I was not ashamed to mix in some tears.
Of course, I am no seer when I dip into my memories. There is no limit to fear of a father's wrath. Even on a little kibbutz, a boy dreads the rage of an angry father returning home after a long day of work. He kicks the broken key and upbraids his wife who, as we recall from... Who, Kofko? In his own demented way, he would throw a wild party one evening to free the household of a tyrannical father's yoke. It may be that as he steps forward, he breaks out in a drunken monologue of which the principal subject is the purpose of going forth in liberty. But little Franz instantly comes to and loses his nerve. With two steps back, he flings himself, wracked with longing, on the memory of the dearly departed, on the happy days of his childhood with his father and the simple, quiet pleasure of their home warm against the cold and rain of a European winter.
In the end, in that twisted way of his, he would spit, "ptui, ptui, ptui," berating his mother and sister so these slow-witted women, these stupid loved ones, would grasp at last just who it was they were bound to serve from then to the end of their days.
© Elisha Porat, 12/6/98