In the Fall of 2013, I took a course at my university called “East Central Europe”. It was a fascinating course and caused me to think deeply about: history, identity, culture(s), language(s) and borders. In going through the history of this part of the world, I loved the interdisciplinary-nature of the course. We looked at Europe through various lenses and from various fields of study. As an English-major, I loved the various readings we would have about: Nazism, Communism, the Intelligentsia, and etc. However, I was struck when learning about ‘minor-literature’. I’ve never heard this term until my last semester of my undergraduate-program. So, in celebration of my love for literature, I want to dedicate the next week to minor-literature.
Before starting this week on minor-literature, I will share a little background information about the advent and emergence of minor-literature.
Caveat: This was a paper I had wrote for my class. So, please refrain from getting bored with the formal-tone of the paper.
The Emergence of Minor Literature: An Analysis of “Birds” by Bruno Schulz and “Jackals and Arabs” by Franza Kafka
In the twentieth-century within East Central Europe, there emerged minor literature. Minor literature is deemed as being political since subject peoples aren’t sovereign, usually within a periphery. Additionally, this form of literature usually provokes and anticipates political action. Strikingly, this literature has a concern of the people. Minor literature stands to serve as an advocate for groups and individuals that aren’t being represented. In understanding the complexity of minor literature within twentieth-century East Century Europe, it is important to look at two writers from similar backgrounds with two different styles of writing- Bruno Schulz and Franz Kafka. In looking at the two various writing-styles of Schulz and Kafka, I will examine as a literary-critic how Schulz “Birds” and Kafka’s “Jackals and Arabs” adds to the creation of minor-literature in advocating for groups that aren’t represented within their individual societies in twentieth-century East Central Europe.
In understanding the role of minor literature in the lives of each of these writers, it is integral to understand their backgrounds and the social-issues surrounding their writings. Kafka was born in 1883 and lived until 1924. He lived a relatively sedentary life and lived most of his life in Prague. Additionally, he had lived closely with his family and could free himself from them. In his life-time, Kafka published very few of this works. His fame began in the 1930’s, but this was halted by Nazism. Most of Kafka’s writings were: existentialist, theological and modernist. Kafka was Jewish, German and Czech. He lived in the Czech Republic as a participant in German culture in the Austria-Hungary Empire. He spoken very clear and lucid German. However, most of his writings aren’t explicitly Jewish.
Similarly, Schulz was Jewish. He was born in 1892 and died in 1942. He was born in Drohobych, near Lviv, which is currently the Ukraine. Schulz did have knowledge of Kafka’s work and was influenced by Proust and Thomas Manh. Schulz was first protected by a Nazi named Landau. Additionally, Schulz mostly wrote short-stories. However, Schulz writings are different from Kafka’s in many ways. Kafka’s writings doesn’t use metaphors in a visual sense nor does Kafka use animal-fables which is seen throughout Shulz’ minor literature.
In looking at one of Kafka’s writings, the “Jackals and the Arabs” presents an interesting look at violence and its cycle. The short-story starts in the deserts of Arabia, in which a European man is approached by Jackals, talking to him in human-form about a long-standing quarrel. Kafka writes that “a swarming of jackals all around us” in relations to the European-man that was approached by this group of animals (252). In being approached by the group of Jackals, the man is told that “the north has the intelligence that is not found here among the Arabs. Not a spark of intelligence can be struck from their cold haughtiness” (Kafka, pg 253). In reading this story, critics may deem this statement as being racist and not indicative of a whole race of individuals. However, this passage written by Kafka could indicate perpetuating feelings by some Jews during this time-period. In looking at the passage above, it is important to see a form of tension that is built up within the group of jackals. In continuing within the passage, “they kill animals in order to eat them and they scorn carrion” (Kafka, pg 255). Kafka is letting readers understand at this point in the story that the Arabs are supposedly killing animals, specifically Jackals. So, the Jackals tells the European man that “…we will draw their blood and the quarrel will end” (Kafka, pg 253). In this part of the story, one may ask about the role of minor-literature and how it relates to the discord present between the Jackals and the Arabs. Kafka is known for his allegorical-style in presenting his literature, thus it is note-worthy to deduce from his readings the social-context in which he is writing in during their time-period in which he wrote a piece of literary-work. Some literary-critics would argue that Kafka is referring to the Jewish-Muslim discord while others would state that this discord would’ve been too early. However, Kafka adds within the story that the Jackals are seeking revenge and sought out the help of the European-man to avenge for the Arab’s mass-murdering of animals by stating that “…with the help of your all-powerful hands, cut their throats with these scissors” (255). This story could easily represent discord between a core and its periphery, especially in the context that the jackals felt as if their autonomy and lives were at risk. Also, one must remember that minor literature anticipates as political action and functions as a voice for the under-represented.
However, in the literary-work presented by Schulz, the chapter “Birds” in The Street of Crocodiles, presents an interesting looking at life within the periphery. Schulz’ style of composition is less-allegorical and more straight-forward than Kafka’s text, “Jackals and Arabs”. In this chapter of the novel, the audience finds a father that is becoming aloof from the family-unit as he withdraws within his own world. In order to illustrate Schulz’ difference(s) in composition, he begins the chapter by stating that “…the yellow-days of winter, filled with boredom. The rust-colored earth was covered with a threadbare, meager tablecloths of snow full of holes” (45). In this first sentence of the chapter, Schulz’ composition shows the audience the importance of imagery. In letting the audience know the mental and physical-state of the father, Schulz writes that the father “…grew more and more remote from practical affairs. When my mother, worried and unhappy about his condition tried to draw him into a conversation about business, about the payments due at the end of the month, he listened absent-minded, anxiety showed in his abstracted look” (46). In this story, the head-of-the-household was deteriorately gradually over-time. And that “at that time, we noticed for the first time father’s passionate interest in animals. To begin with, it was the passion of the huntsman and the artist rolled into one” (Schulz, pg 47). In looking at this passage specifically, Schulz differentiates himself from Kafka’s in his usage of animals. He compares the father to this child-like state. More importantly, “it soon became necessary to move my father to two rooms at the top of the house which had served as storage rooms,” thus letting the audience understand that the father was becoming less and less involved the family and this is similar to the core-periphery relationship. The periphery is indeed suffering from the influence and the lack of autonomy that most cores provide. And towards the end “a moment later, my father came downstairs- a broken man, an exiled king who had lost his throne and his kingdom” (Schulz). Schulz is allowing us to see the struggle as being an individual and even head-of-the-household within a periphery.
In concluding, these two different authors provide a look into minor-literature and its importance. It provides for under-represented individuals to gain a voice and to become political-advocates. It allows for political-action to be brought up.
1. Schulz, Bruno. The Street of Crocodiles. [New York]: Penguin, 1977. Print.
2. Kafka, Franz, and Nahum N. Glatzer. Complete Stories. New York: Schocken, 1983. Print.