Letter from his Father

Nadine Gordimer

My dear son,

You wrote me a letter you never sent.

It wasn’t for me – it was for the whole world to read. (You and your instructions that everything should be burned. Hah!) You were never open and frank with me – that’s one of the complaints you say I was always making against you. You write it in the letter you didn’t want me to read; so what does that sound like, eh? But I’ve read the letter now, I’ve read it anyway, I’ve read everything, although you said I put your books on the night-table and never touched them. You know how it is, here where I am: not something that can be explained to anyone who isn’t here – they used to talk about secrets going to the grave, but the funny thing is there are no secrets here at all. If there was something you wanted to know, you should have known, if it doesn’t let you lie quiet, then you can have knowledge of it, from here. Yes, you gave me that much credit, you said I was a true Kafka in ‘strength ... eloquence, endurance, a certain way of doing things on a grand scale’ and I’ve not been content just to rot. In that way, I’m still the man I was, the go-getter. Restless. Restless. Taking whatever opportunity I can. There isn’t anything, now, you can regard as hidden from me. Whether you say I left it unread on the night-table or whether you weren’t man enough, even at the age of thirty-six, to show me a letter that was supposed to be for me.

I write to you after we are both dead. Whereas you don’t stir. There won’t be any response from you, I know that. You began that letter by saying you were afraid of me – and then you were afraid to let me read it. And now you’ve escaped altogether. Because without the Kafka will-power you can’t reach out from nothing and nowhere. I was going to call it a desert, but where’s the sand, where’re the camels, where’s the sun – I’m still mensch enough to crack a joke – you see? Oh excuse me, I forgot – you didn’t like my jokes, my fooling around with kids. My poor boy, unfortunately you had no life in you, in all those books and diaries and letters (the ones you posted, to strangers, to women) you said it a hundred times before you put the words in my mouth, in your literary way, in that letter: you yourself were ‘unfit for life’. So death comes, how would you say, quite naturally to you. It’s not like that for a man of vigour like I was, I can tell you, and so here I am writing, talking ... I don’t know if there is a word for what this is. Anyway, it’s Hermann Kafka. I’ve outlived you here, same as in Prague.

That is what you really accuse me of, you know, for sixty or so pages (I notice the length of that letter varies a bit from language to language, of course it’s been translated into everything – I don’t know what – Hottentot and Icelandic, Chinese, although you wrote it ‘for me’ in German). I outlived you, not for seven years, as an old sick man, after you died, but while you were young and alive. Clear as daylight, from the examples you give of being afraid of me, from the time you were a little boy: you were not afraid – you were envious. At first, when I took you swimming and you say you felt yourself a nothing, puny and weak beside my big, strong, naked body in the change-house – all right, you also say you were proud of such a father, a father with a fine physique ... And may I remind you that father was taking the trouble and time, the few hours he could get away from the business, to try and make something of that nebisch, develop his muscles, put some flesh on those poor little bones so he would grow up sturdy? But even before your barmitzvah the normal pride every boy has in his father changed to jealousy, with you. You couldn’t be like me, so you decided I wasn’t good enough for you: coarse, loud-mouthed, ate ‘like a pig’ (your very words), cut my fingernails at table, cleaned my ears with a toothpick. Oh yes, you can’t hide anything from me, now, I’ve read it all, all the thousands and thousands of words you’ve used to shame your own family, your own father, before the whole world. And with your gift for words you turn everything inside-out and prove, like a circus magician, it’s love, the piece of dirty paper’s a beautiful silk flag, you loved your father too much, and so – what? You tell me. You couldn’t be like him? You wanted to be like him? The khazer, the shouter, the gobbler? Yes, my son, these ‘insignificant details’ you write down and quickly dismiss – these details hurt. Eternally. After all, you’ve become immortal through writing, as you insist you did, only about me, ‘everything was about you, father’; a hundred years after your birth, the Czech Jew, son of Hermann and Julie Kafka, is supposed to be one of the greatest writers who ever lived. Your work will be read as long as there are people to read it. That’s what they say everywhere, even the Germans who burned your sisters and my grandchildren in incinerators. Some say you were also some kind of prophet (God knows what you were thinking, shut away in your room while the rest of the family was having a game of cards in the evening); after you died, some countries built camps where the things you made up for that story In the Penal Colony were practised, and ever since then there have been countries in different parts of the world where the devil’s work that came into your mind is still carried out – I don’t want to think about it.

You were not blessed to bring any happiness to this world with your genius, my son. Not at home, either. Well, we had to accept what God gave. Do you ever stop to think whether it wasn’t a sorrow for me (never mind – for once – how you felt) that your two brothers, who might have grown up to bring your mother and me joy, died as babies? And you sitting there at meals always with a pale, miserable, glum face, not a word to say for yourself, picking at your food ... You haven’t forgotten that I used to hold up the newspaper so as not to have to see that. You bear a grudge. You’ve told everybody. But you don’t think about what there was in a father’s heart. From the beginning. I had to hide it behind a newspaper – anything. For your sake.

Because you were never like any other child. You admit it: however we had tried to bring you up, you say you would have become a ‘weakly, timid, hesitant person’. What small boy doesn’t enjoy a bit of a rough-house with his father? But writing at thirty-six years old, you can only remember being frightened when I chased you, in fun, round the table, and your mother, joining in, would snatch you up out of my way while you shrieked. For God’s sake, what’s so terrible about that? I should have such memories of my childhood! I know you never liked to hear about it, it bored you, you don’t spare me the written information that it ‘wore grooves in your brain’, but when I was seven years old I had to push my father’s barrow from village to village, with open sores on my legs in winter. Nobody gave me delicacies to mess about on my plate; we were glad when we got potatoes. You make a show of me, mimicking how I used to say these things. But wasn’t I right when I told you and your sisters – provided for by me, living like fighting-cocks because I stood in the business twelve hours a day – what did you know of such things? What did anyone know, what I suffered as a child? And then it’s a sin if I wanted to give my own son a little pleasure I never had.

And that other business you schlepped up out of the past – the night I’m supposed to have shut you out on the pavlatche. Because of you the whole world knows the Czech word for the kind of balcony we had in Prague! Yes, the whole world knows that story, too. I am famous, too. You made me famous as the father who frightened his child once and for all: for life. Thank you very much. I want to tell you that I don’t even remember that incident. I’m not saying it didn’t happen, although you always had an imagination such as nobody ever had before or since, eh? But it could only have been the last resort your mother and I turned to – you know that your mother spoilt you, over-protected they would call it, now. You couldn’t possibly remember how naughty you were at night, what a little tyrant you were, how you thought of every excuse to keep us sleepless. It was all right for you, you could nap during the day, a small child. But I had my business, I had to earn the living, I needed some rest. Pieces of bread, a particular toy you fancied, make wee-wee, another blanket on, a blanket taken off, drinks of water – there was no end to your, tricks and your whining. I suppose I couldn’t stand it any longer. I feared to do you some harm. (You admit I never beat you, only scared you a little by taking off my braces in preparation to use them on you.) So I put you out of harm’s way. That night. Just for a few minutes. It couldn’t have been more than a minute. As if your mother would let you catch cold! God forbid! And you’ve held it against me all your life. I’m sorry, I have to say it again, that old expression of mine that irritated you so much: I wish I had your worries.

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