Kafka’s Mouse and Bukowski’s Bluebird

Book maze

I read Kafka’s The Trial earlier in the year, and it was a boring read that paid off in a big way by the end. I found the experience typical of the challenge of reading ‘real’ novels; a lot of the time you’re pushing into foreign territory on the basis of simple recommendation. I do this a lot nowadays because I feel, a lot of the time, that I am constantly bombarded by bullshit.

I work in a commercial gym that is brimming with the worst kind of propaganda. Goodlife Gyms are not about freeing people from unhealthy living, or empowering them in terms of health and fitness to live a ‘good life’. Goodlife do not give a Good Fuck about anything other than the contents of your wallet, and that’s the bottom line.

Their business model is entirely about letting the market decide. The walls are crawling with video screens playing awful commercial dance music, featuring music clip after music clip of scantily-clad dancers, expensive cars and all the rest of that Snoop Dog consumerist poison.

Goodlife rent you space and equipment for your membership dollars, but will just as readily inflame your insecurities and try to sell you junk food on your way in and out (this is not an exaggeration; Goodlife have stationed a Street’s ice cream fridge beside the exit and a large Domino’s Pizza ad at the entrance).

As far as totem animals for training are concerned, I like to think of William Blake’s eagle.

When thou seest an eagle, thou seest a portion of genius. Lift up thy head!

The eagle never lost so much time as when he consented to learn from the crow.

– Proverbs of Hell.

And if that’s true, then a Goodlife Gym is a fucking mouse wheel.

***

The basic reality of exercise is that it is exactly like ‘real’ reading. It’s uncomfortable and if it’s easy, you’re a lazy sonofabitch. When it’s hard, it’s cathartic and pushes your evolution. You’re better suited to survival and enjoyment of life comes to you more readily.

That’s my belief, anyway, and The Trial confirmed this. I didn’t feel I could relate to its protagonist or his experience necessarily, but K’s habitation of a world which seems like a joke that everyone else is in on but him has become a staple metaphor of modern experience. It’s the uncanny feeling of understanding everything that’s being said, although everyone else is laughing but you. Then, you find out that your life is the punchline.

And then you die.

After reading The Trial, I did a bit of googling and found Kafka’s A Little Fable. It’s short and simple and goes like this;

      “Alas,” said the mouse, “the whole world is growing smaller every day. At the beginning it was so big that I was afraid, I kept running and running, and I was glad when I saw walls far away to the right and left, but these long walls have narrowed so quickly that I am in the last chamber already, and there in the corner stands the trap that I must run into.”

     “You only need to change your direction,” said the cat, and ate it up. 

When I read it, the fable closed around me like a wet sheet of plastic. I don’t know about you, but I think that’s the instinctive reaction of a reader who has been smacked in the face with an uncomfortable truth.

***

I first read Charles Bukowski’s Women in my early twenties. I really enjoyed it, until I got to the end. Then, I was furious. I was angry that the protagonist, Henry Chinaski, had found love and then betrayed it by not being faithful to the woman involved. I spoke to a friend of mine, and he explained that maybe the ending was intended to be a positive thing; by choosing to see it the way I had, I had simplified the point out of it. My friend felt that Bukowski’s story was a celebration of the fact that such a love could exist at all, despite its protagonist being incapable of sustaining it.

I didn’t agree; I was too angry. I have only recently found the courage to become willing to understand it.

One of the other hallmarks of ‘real’ reading is that whether you love a certain book or hate it, it gets under your skin. Years later it leaps back into your head for no seeming reason, and when you reach out into the dark at night it suddenly comes to hand, like a wrench.

Most of the time you’re looking for a screwdriver, but it’s better to have something than nothing at all.

I don’t have much in common with Bukowski’s protagonist either, but just like Kafka, I often find he comes to hand. Someone told me that Ham on Rye was Charlie’s best novel, but after reading it, I had to disagree. To put it simply for the purpose of this article, Ham on Rye felt like a precursor to Post Office. Ham on Rye is a round-by-round account of a young man being systematically beaten up by life.

If the novels are autobiographical, then Post Office is the victory that comes after Ham on Rye. Just like K, Henry Chinaski (Bukowski’s protagonist) works inside a company driven by the mysterious clockwork of its own surreal and bizarre protocols. Ironically, Chinaski’s ‘solution’ is non-cooperation. It sounds crazy, but like all the best dysfunctional relationships, it works.

Much as I enjoyed – and loved – Post Office, I found my personal equivalent to Kakfa’s mouse for Bukowski in one of his poems, called There’s a Bluebird in my Heart.  

there’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I’m too tough for him,
I say, stay in there, I’m not going
to let anybody see
you.
there’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I pour whiskey on him and inhale
cigarette smoke
and the whores and the bartenders
and the grocery clerks
never know that
he’s
in there.

there’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I’m too tough for him,
I say,
stay down, do you want to mess
me up?
you want to screw up the
works?
you want to blow my book sales in
Europe?
there’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I’m too clever, I only let him out
at night sometimes
when everybody’s asleep.
I say, I know that you’re there,
so don’t be
sad.
then I put him back,
but he’s singing a little
in there, I haven’t quite let him
die
and we sleep together like
that
with our
secret pact
and it’s nice enough to
make a man
weep, but I don’t
weep, do
you?

***

Kafka must have lived his life a few inches to the left of suicide. He insisted that all his novels and stories be destroyed after he died, which have come to be recognized as some of the most brilliant literary creations of the twentieth century. The fact is, both he and Bukowski have, as artists, defied even death. We can still hear Kafka’s mouse and Charlie’s bluebird.

Charlie’s bluebird knows about the walls, but there’s no running back and forth watching them close in. All that existential crap has been accepted as a foregone conclusion. Charlie’s bluebird pisses on the closest wall, farts, opens a beer, sits on its arse and extends a middle finger at the cat. Then, it starts to sing and lets loose a gutter soul so beautiful and so moving it hangs in its listener’s heart like an echo.

Apparently, bulls are colourblind and the red of the matador’s cape is incidental. The bull is incited to charge by the movement of the cloth. I suspect that in a similar way, the cat in Kafka’s fable is deaf. The fact is however, the bluebird isn’t singing for the cat. Charlie’s bluebird is singing for itself. It’s also singing for us, and we can hear it from within our own labyrinth, all those walls away.

***

I’d like to think my totem animal was William Blake’s tyger, but that’s vanity. As a kid, one afternoon I was charged with digging out the compost heap behind the house. I got out there with the shovel and disturbed the first rat I had ever seen. It came roaring out of there like a wallaby with fangs; it was big and black and muscular with dirty great yellow teeth. An animal like that would be a serious undertaking for any cat. It could expect to lose an eye or an ear, and if it got bit or scratched, would be sick for days afterwards.

Given my choice though, I’d rather be a bluebird than anything. Even if the cat is going to get you, just the same.

cheshire_cat_by_touchko-d4zd5ab

 

 

 

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