A small crowd gathered last Thursday night at The Ossington for the book launch of Franzlations: The Imaginary Kafka Parables (New Star Books, 2011). A collaborative work between poets Gary Barwin and Hugh Thomas and featuring illustrations by Craig Conley, the book – as its title suggests – takes the paradoxical and absurd prose of the Czech literary giant as a point of departure for tangential musings on language, transformation and, of course, the nature of parable itself. The book’s authors summarized the impetus of the project early in the evening with the proclamation that “new writing is the imaginary future of past writing.” It is with this sense of creative lineage that Franzlations sets out to explore the labyrinthine corridors of Kafka’s work.
The evening began with brief readings from two Toronto-based writers. Chris Puma, immediately discarding his “tainted translation” of Kafka’s Collected Stories, read instead from a Google translation of Kafka’s original German. The result was a hilarious distortion of the original, an apt tribute to an author whose writing always exists somewhere on the border of sense and nonsense. Next up was acclaimed Toronto poet, David McFadden, who read a poem from Be Calm, Honey, his 2009 collection recently shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award in Poetry. The poem, a portrait of what it means to be infinitely small – literally smaller than a grasshopper – in a world of towering proportions, was undeniably Kafka-esque and set the stage for the main event.
Against projections of Conley’s minimal, diagrammatic illustrations, Barwin and Thomas alternated rapidly between each other, juggling their book’s seemingly self-contained aphorisms and parables in a rhythm that highlighted the project’s overall cohesion.
A tribute to Kafka stripped of the element of narrative might easily risk being a fragmented experience, a mere collection of paradoxes and non-rational linguistic puzzles. Fortunately, Barwin and Thomas inject the word-play of Franzlations with exactly the kind of wit and dark humor often overlooked in Kafka’s own work. Rather than focus on the nightmarish quality of Kafka’s writing, Barwin and Thomas emphasize the playful irony of metamorphosis, the way in which things both are and are not what they appear to be. In one memorable riff on that infamous opening line, the authors recounted how “one morning Ovid woke to find himself a Czech insurance officer.” While Barwin and Thomas moved deftly between these registers Thursday night, between light-heartedness and cerebral absurdity, so many mirrors, inversions and mazes eventually sent this reviewer’s head spinning. Clearly, Franzlations is a book to be absorbed slowly and revisited. After all, as the authors themselves noted, “a road is a labyrinth unfurled.”