5 / 5 Stars
Captivating, strange and ultimately rather chilling.
I'm actually reviewing another version of this book - so I'm not sure if it contains the same short stories (couldn't find an image of the one I'm reading!); and for that reason, I'll only talk about the ones I know are in both - The Metamorphosis and In the Penal Colony.
I first read The Metamorphosis when I was a teenager, then again in my twenties. Both times, the story really stayed with me - though I have to say, I don't think I really truly grasped its full horror until I read it a third time (this time in my thirties!).
Short, sweet summary coming up. Gregor is a travelling salesman who lives with his parents and sister, Grete. One day, he wakes up to find that he's become an enormous bug. His sister initially tries to care for him, but it becomes pretty evident that not only is everyone repulsed by him, but that they actively wish him harm.
In the Penal Colony is something altogether different. This was a story I'd not read before, and bloody hell, I'm not sure I'd want to read it again any time soon. Not because it was awful (quite the contrary) but because it was so unsettling. It's about an officer showing off an execution machine, which needles the condemned's sentence into their body while they're pinned in a 'harrow', then finally runs them through with a metal spike. Except it doesn't quite have the ending one might expect...
So, let's start with the more famous of the two - The Metamorphosis. This is just a staggeringly brilliant piece of writing; and although I've always appreciated the surreal quality of it (that classic 'waking nightmare' element that seems to feature in much of Kafka's work), I don't think I fully realised the monumental sadness and self-loathing that drives it. Gregor is not just a fantastical, revolting invention - he's also a pitiful metaphor for self-hatred and isolation - the feeling of being rejected by those you love, merely because of superficial factors over which you have no control.
Kafka's depiction of Gregor is absolutely freaking masterful too. He not only manages to somehow capture what it would be like to be a giant bug (down to the fun of running across the ceiling), but also the stomach-turning revoltingness of it too - the clack of the mandibles, the too-large body, the preference for rotten food. Yet none of this is Gregor's fault and that's what makes it such a heartbreaking read.
In the Penal Colony continues this theme of human cruelty and isolation and pushes it to factor eleven. To my mind, it's inferior to The Metamorphosis, perhaps because it is so unrelentingly morbid. There's something about it that almost reminds me of Edgar Allen Poe - where macabre crosses into out-and-out horror. Seriously, after reading the story, I put the book down and stared at the wall for about ten minutes, until my husband had to check I was alright - it was that unpleasant! But BRILLIANTLY written.
If you haven't read Kafka yet - do. He's fully deserving of being considered up there with the greats. Weird, eerie and entirely 'different' to anyone else. Now that's an accolade.