Franz Kafka as Survivalist Prayer: Review of Babylon Laid Waste: Journey in the Twilight of the Gods
Updated: Nov 25, 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.
The novel’s largest invocation of the real Franz Kafka occurs in the character Franticek Kafka, a camp survivor and Viennese Jew who once lived with the Wagnerian opera star Lenka Ostrova, a Bohemian-Jewish woman whom Franticek watched scrub the Viennese streets with a toothbrush as Nazi-sympathizing hecklers laughed. In Franticek’s character, the book’s invocation of the great, German-speaking, Jewish novelist and short story writer as a parallel for one of the book’s main personalities sets Franticek Kafka’s character in a different place and adds even more complexity in regards to the book’s other stars. In his 29 May 1914 diary entry, the novelist Franz Kafka wrote “I stare rigidly ahead lest my eyes lose the imaginary peepholes of the imaginary kaleidoscope into which I am looking, I mix noble and selfish intentions in confusion…I invite heaven and earth to take part in my schemes, at the same time I am careful not to forget the insignificant little people one can draw out of every side-street and who for the time being are more useful to my schemes” (274). Like the real Kafka’s metaphorical kaleidoscope, Franticek Kafka’s character is fantastical and heroic, mysterious and educated, the lone wolf whose life circumstances have made it difficult for him to connect with others. In other words, Kafka’s character is, at times, an undecipherable myriad of traits and skills. However, in Franticek, Misia and readers alike find the antithesis of characters like The Baroness. Self-sufficient, individualistic, proudly Jewish, yet willing to take a stand for just causes and those whom those causes represent, Franticek, like his personal story, as Misia states “was not one of individual suffering,” and Misia observes that Franticek “embedded his story within the overall fate of his people” because “his experience, as he presented it, was emblematic of that of all tormented Jews” (Goldstein 334).
Similarly, in his 20 August 1911 diary entry, Franz Kafka wrote “Is it so difficult and can an outsider understand that you experience a story within yourself from its beginning, from the distant point up to the approaching locomotives of steel, coal, and steam, and you don’t abandon it even now, but want to be pursued by it and have time for it, therefore are pursued by it and of your own volition run before it wherever it may thrust and wherever you may lure it” (51). Franticek Kafka’s personal torments then mirror those of not only war-destroyed Europe and the Jewish people, but also that of the novel’s narrator, Misia who states “And to that end, I had no choice but to hitch my fate to the goodwill of this strange man who called himself Kafka” (Goldstein 91). Throughout the book, Misia struggles with balancing her real identity and her fake identity, that of Beate Hauser, and Misia often finds herself in an internal game of who-is-really-who. However, for Misia, it’s not only a matter of names, but also a matter of Jewish-American identity, which often becomes an incredible chasm between her and Kafka, especially as Kafka embarks on his personal vendetta which involves the slaying of Elfriede Kling, as well as his reiteration that he and Misia should return to Palestine. These chasms make Misia an impressionable, but willing-to-question, student for Franticek, especially in the field of clandestine survival in enemy territory, a field which often causes Misia moral anxiety and make her question the person that she has become, particularly in her acceptance of violence: “Forty days in the wilderness with Kafka would do it, I guess” (Goldstein 168). Thus, one must consider the significance of the number forty. To Christians, the allusion might be easy: Christ spent 40 days and nights, tempted by the devil, in the desert. His ascension after resurrection occurred within a 40-day time period. Christians, like the Jews, also use the number 40 to signify important time periods. Thus, Misia subtly uses the 40-day time period to convey to readers the physical, emotional, and even spiritual significance of her time with Franticek in the wilderness, because at this critical point Misia recognizes that she is no longer the woman she was when she first arrived in Germany from America.
Nonetheless, Misia—because of her emotional and personal strength, her rebelliousness, her resilience, her adaptability, her literary savvy, and her intellect—becomes an admirable heroine for readers searching for a strong female lead. Not only does Franticek Kafka become an inseparable entity from Misia, so engrained in her psyche and physicality that she is forever altered, but also the works of Franza Kafka leave an impression on Misia: “Franz Kafka. The nights I spent inside his stories and characters, so strange, so different from anything I had come across in my readings, taking me into a universe, seemingly surreal in the telling, yet starkly realistic in holding up a mirror of the human soul” (Goldstein 102). Eerrily, too, at the novel’s end Misia faces her own trial, so the novel implicitly returns to Misia’s first encounter with Franz Kafka: “The day after Kafka’s trial ended and he was taken away in handcuffs by the American military police, I too was ordered to appear before a military tribunal. The charge was illegal entry into a country that had been declared off-limits to civilians of any nationality” (Goldstein 379). Misia receives the verdict of immediate deportation and repatriation to the United States. Her story ends suddenly, similarly to how Franz Kafka’s The Trial ends—abruptly and unfinished.
In conclusion, Babylon Laid Waste: A Journey in the Twilight of the Gods becomes an important novel as the world battles coronavirus and incurs threats of rising nationalism, particularly in Europe. The novel also emphasizes the importance of memory, and not just personal memory. Through Misia’s recollections of his works at various times throughout the novel, and through the carefully crafted character Franticek Kafka, the real Franz Kafka and his works are memorialized. Just as importantly, the novel conveys the Jewish people’s struggles in a historical context so that modern readers can understand the cycle of violence towards the Jewish people that perpetuates societies and cultures and inflames during times of rising nationalism. Perhaps, even more importantly, readers can learn the power of resilience and individual strength in the face of overwhelming circumstances that seem impossible and that the dedication to one mission might ultimately lead one to the saving graces of another.
Goldstein, Brigette. Babylon Laid Waste: A Journey in the Twilight of the Gods. Pierredor
Books: New Brunswick, New Jersey. 2019. Kafka, Franz. Diaries, 1910-1923. Ed. Max Brod. Schocken Books: New York. 1976. Luebering, J.E. “Franz Kafka.” Encyclopedia Britannica. 1 November 2019.