Franz Kafka as Survivalist Prayer: Review of Babylon Laid Waste: Journey in the Twilight of the Gods
Updated: Nov 26, 2020
Set in 1946, Babylon Laid Waste: A Journey in the Twilight of the Gods follows the book’s main character Misia Safran, a highly talented and recognized writer and Jewish émigré, as she receives a mysterious, alarming letter that claims her grandmother is still alive in a care facility in Berlin. Misia first questions the potentiality and reality of returning to a war-ravaged and ideologically divided Germany to save her grandmother, but she—despite her parents’ objections—connects with a people-smuggling ring and acquires forged identity papers that launch Misia on a journey into the heart of the defeated Third Reich. Misia’s travels to Berlin are quickly interrupted. Just as her adventures using the false identity of Beate Hauser, and her discovery of the novelist Franz Kafka’s writings begin, Misia finds herself captured by the US military and placed in a camp for female Nazi war criminals. Unwilling to reveal her true identity and true mission, Misia, much to her surprise, forms a relationship with Franticek Kafka, the dark, mysterious, self-confident former Jewish prisoner who intuits that Misia is a Jew posing as a German. After her capture, with Franticek, Misia dances into a dangerous realm where personal vendetta crosses with justice for the Jewish people. In Babylon Laid Waste: Journey into the Twilight of the Idols, the novelist Franz Kafka becomes just as important as its main narrator, Misia, because the invocation of Kafka’s person and works throughout the novel become a prayer for survival for Misia.
Misia first encounters Franz Kafka’s work during her stay with Frau Maibach, an obviously educated, well-connected woman who houses Misia while she waits for her assigned train. Misia, previously unfamiliar with Kafka and his work, reads Kafka’s The Trial: “Right at the start, this writer struck me as more avant-garde than the others. As I read on, a sense of excitement came over me as one feels about the discovery of something new, something so utterly unlike anything familiar, like coming a upon a heretofore unknown continent” (46). Misia then asks Frau Maibach “‘Who is Franz Kafka?’” to which Frau Maibach responds “‘One of our greatest writers’” and describes Kafka as “‘a Jew from Prague’” (46). Frau Maibach continues by asserting “‘More people will read his works now that the Nazis are gone’” (47). Kafka’s rise to literary prominence occurred posthumously, but it also coincided with Hitler’s rise to power and overlapped with his three sisters’ deportations and deaths to concentration camps (“Franz Kafka”). Not until after World War II did Kafka’s work undergo a resurgence in Germany and Austria, where it began to greatly influence German literature. Thus, with its cast of unbelievable—but quite possible characters—whose own moral and personal complexities mirror those of a nation recovering from the ramifications of a single, nefarious ideology’s rampages, Babylon Laid Waste: A Journey into the Twilight of the Idols propels readers into events labeled historical fiction but that in a different time, under different circumstances, could have been reality. With its Wagnerian opera stars who think of Wagner as their master and his works’ message as a platform worth rebuilding on, this book examines how an ideology’s sycophants never leave the propaganda, even though the victors have conquered and dispelled the propaganda. The book also considers what art forms and artists propaganda elevates and promotes and what art forms and artists it shatters, and potentially even kills.
No character in the book better exemplifies anti-Semitic propaganda-gone-arts-patron than The Baroness, a Wagnerian devotee still sympathetic to Nazi causes who lives in denial that the Reich has fallen, and whose own son is named “Odin.” The Baroness, duped by Misia’s false identity, also believes that Misia is as much of a Wagner sycophant as she is, eventually takes Misia into her villa as a personal secretary-maid, where The Baroness has fostered Hannalore, the daughter of a high-ranking Nazi judge for whom The Baroness served as mistress. Hannalore, an opera prodigy whose real name is Hannah, intuits that Misia is a Jew, because Hannalore herself is half-Jewish, a fact that her Nazi father attempted to hide by divorcing Hannalore’s Jewish mother after the implementation of the Nuremburg Laws. Hannalore states her father insisted on fostering “the Aryan half in me to prevail over the tainted Jewish half.” Hannalore’s Jewish identity is also a fact of which The Baroness is not aware and a fact that, after Hannalore is accepted into the home of the former Wagnerian opera star Elfriede Kling, is revealed by Odin.
The real Franz Kafka also reflected heavily on Jewish identity, despite being “German in both language and culture” (“Franz Kafka”). Eastern European Jews especially fascinated Kafka because of their intense spiritual life, and in his diaries between 1910 and 1914, Kafka often writes brief entries such “Day before yesterday among the Jews in Café Savoy” (73) and “Yesterday with the Jews” (85). Kafka also reflected on his own Jewish identity by considering how the German language stripped his relationship with his Jewish mother of intimacy: “Yesterday it occurred to me that I did not always love my mother as she deserved as I could, only because the German language prevented it” (88). Kafka then comments “The Jewish mother is no ‘Mutter,’ to call her ‘Mutter’ makes her a little comic (not to herself, because we are in Germany), we give a Jewish woman the name of a German mother, but forget the ‘Mutter’ is peculiarly German for the Jew” (88). Kafka then asserts “I believe that it is only the memories of the ghetto that still preserve the Jewish family, for the word ‘Vater’ too is far from meaning the Jewish father” (88). Interestingly enough, Kafka at one point studied Hebrew and even considered moving to Palestine, similarly to how Franticek Kafka in Babylon Laid Waste: Twilight of the Idols speaks Hebrew and often proposes to Misia that they solidify their relationship by escaping together to Palestine.