Does Franz Kafka work here? Pan K. has not left the building.
Arriving at Radio Free-Rhineland’s Premises. A first experience of the Teutonic work ethic. The first day degenerates into a surrealist farce.
It is not Kafka’s fault that his wonderful writings have lately turned into a fad, and are read by people who have neither the ability nor the desire to absorb literature.
Beyond a certain point there is no return. This point has to be reached.
I awoke one morning in a strange land, to discover that during the night I had been transformed into a large insect, probably a boring beetle of some kind.
There was no other logical explanation for the sawdust in my throat and the throbbing pain caused by the antennae which had sprouted from my temples. With some difficulty I dressed myself, all six legs working at cross-purposes, and by way of the Subterranean Citizen Movement Network I arrived at The House at 9:55 for the appointment, which was scheduled for 10:00.
I had been told that in the Federal Village punctuality was valued above all else and that “The Doctor” wasn’t kindly disposed to lateness.
I was nervous and beginning to sweat (do insects have sweat glands?) as the day’s humidity was already rising, and through circumstances beyond my control I had very nearly arrived late. The Subterranean Citizen Movement Network had experienced delays due to person-damage; and then the rolling steps from the underground part of the Network had stopped operating.
For safety it had been roped off, and a group of men wearing yellow plastic hats and the clothes of the working classes stood nearby, smoking cigarettes and examining a pair of breasts on the front page of a newspaper. They clearly had the situation under control.
Once above ground, I checked my printed instructions and followed a long avenue of chestnut trees in the direction of the river, as was written. The road was being dug up, and parts of the footpath had planks laid down, to cross large patches of mud. More groups of men in yellow plastic hats stood around smoking cigarettes near some large machinery which, judging by the exposed mechanical parts and cables spilling from its belly, was clearly unserviceable. It had been idle so long that homeless men were sleeping in the shelter offered by the machine’s nooks and crannies.
Large reels of orange and yellow cable lay everywhere, and orange-coloured fences had been erected to form a maze which had to be negotiated. I decided this must all be part of the test and humoured them by working my way through the labyrinth, instead of just walking around one edge of it, which would have been far easier.
At the end of the long avenue of trees a deep ditch separated The House from the road. A grey iron bridge crossed the ditch to The House, a long, low, gleaming white building with a smooth facade at various points punctuated by large panels of tinted glass. The bridge terminated just in front of the largest of these panels. A person crossed the bridge, approached the glass wall and a section of the glass slid open. They went inside and disappeared as the tinted panel slid noiselessly shut behind them.
I walked up to where the glass had opened, expecting it to do the same at my approach, but nothing happened. There were no instructions, no arrows, just the end of the bridge and the smooth, dark wall of glass. After a minute or two, a second woman crossed the bridge and as she reached the side of The House, the panel slid open for her. I quickly went in after her. She passed her hand over a sensor panel to one side of a small glass gate and that too slid open. She went through.
The gate closed behind her. I was now stuck in the glass box between exterior and interior. After 30 seconds an alarm started squawking. An angry voice speaking a language I didn’t understand came through loudspeakers concealed in the ceiling 5 meters above me. The glass panel through which I had entered slid open and the voice barked an instruction. I didn’t understand, but decided it would be safer if I went out the way I had come in. I found myself back on the bridge. I stood there, wondering if I should walk back over the bridge to the road and forget the whole thing, but I was reluctant to do this as I had travelled a long way to get here and I had spent nearly all my money on the journey. It was important that I keep my appointment with “The Doctor”.
For two weeks I had heard nothing from The Doctor to whom I was to be apprenticed. My case had been passed along a line of people and eventually no-one would answer any more of my questions about the Apprenticeship or the Appointment. Repeated attempts to make further contact had failed, so I left another message on somebody’s Farspeaker Apparatus voice recording device saying I was going to a small town in the country for the weekend, but would be back in the Federal Village on Monday.
I had been given no further details about my role as The Apprentice, so I assumed that all details would be provided at the 10:00 appointment.
Finally the day had arrived and I made sure I knew the Citizen Movement Network connections that would get me to The House with time to spare. Now the only problem was getting inside. I stood on the bridge, feeling for a gap in the glass or a button that would make the panel slide open. The voice barked from the speakers again, and another panel 2 metres to my right slid back. I entered and came through to a long white room with a white reception desk down one side and a row of hard black seats down the other. Many of the seats were already occupied by overheated, worried looking people. Their shirts were already showing dark sweat stains under the arms.
Behind the desk were two retired Social Protection Engineers in grey uniforms, examining a bank of 30 video monitors. I assumed it had been one of them who had given the instructions and opened the door. I decided upon a friendly and apologetic manner as the best approach. I opened my mouth to speak, but no words would come. Slowly a series of grunts and whistles arranged themselves into sounds approximating their language, and I gave my name and explained that I was the new Apprentice and that I had an appointment with The Doctor. The men examined a video screen gravely, then one of them picked up a grey Farspeaker Apparatus and had a brief, terse conversation in which my name was mentioned. He informed me that if I wished to see The Doctor, I must first be seen to by a certain Herr P.
“Sit there” said one of the retired Social Protection Engineers, and indicated the row of black benches along the other wall. “Someone will come for you.”
I sat and waited, ten minutes, then twenty, then thirty. Several people passed, but none paid me the slightest attention. More people hurried by with large folios of papers, or bulky aluminium boxes. Many people who passed seemed to be walking listlessly and blindly. Most of the few people that noticed me at all cast furtive glances in my direction and then quickened their pace. Several shot me disapproving glances. Some made notes.
Each time, I wondered whether this was the person who might be coming for me, and I was half way to standing up with a hand outstretched in greeting – in my briefing notes I had been told that a firm handshake on first meeting was very important here – when they continued on and through another large door, or into a glass elevator which was continually carrying trolleys stacked high with files and folders, up and down through the foyer where I sat. Later I discovered that it was the same trolley each time and that a team of people was employed simply to keep it constantly in motion through the building.
After forty minutes, a dwarf with her legs in iron braces appeared from the large double doors and had almost passed on the other side of the corridor when she circled and approached me. “Herr K?” she asked.
“Yes”, I said.
She spoke no English, so she explained with difficulty that Herr P. was in a meeting, but that I should wait for him in his office. She then led me through a warren of passageways, down some stairs, up in another glass lift and then up another set of stairs and along some more passages.
Everything was painted white. Apart from the lift shafts, there were no landmarks to navigate by; But the lifts were all so alike that for all I knew we may have passed the same one four or five times.
Eventually we arrived at an office which I imagined to be almost directly above the foyer where I had first sat, but two to three floors up. The space was tiny and hot. The air was stale. The blinds were down and the windows closed. I suspected it had been some years since they were last opened. The semi-darkness smelled of carpet glue. The dwarf indicated a chair piled high with files and motioned to me to sit. I didn’t. She shrugged her shoulders and sat down in front of a desk-top data-processing device, switching on a small desk lamp which created a little pool of grey energy saving light on the lower part of her face. She then began moving a small mouse-like device of plastic back and forth across the desk-top and looking at the monitor, occasionally hitting a key and occasionally typing in short bursts. She appeared to be engrossed in her work, and operated even faster when people sauntered along the corridor, some of them observing her through the glass wall as they passed.
I tried to push past, but she grabbed a filing trolley and pulled it across my path.
After an incalculable time, I asked again when Herr P. might return. It was impossible to know, she told me. I suggested that I should contact the The Doctor to whom I was to be apprenticed, and she indicated a farspeaker apparatus on the desk. I didn’t know the number, but I spoke the Doctor’s name and then the name of one of the people I assumed to be the Doctor’s assistants, who had provided me with some information before I departed on my journey. The dwarf shrugged her shoulders again and went back to her data-processing device.
When I asked if she could look the name up in her data-machine, she became defensive.
“I must work,” she said firmly, but with an edge of panic creeping into her voice.
I got up to try and use the keyboard myself, saying that it couldn’t be terribly hard to find a list of internal contacts in her data processing machine. She jumped down off the chair and placed herself between me and the keyboard, a look of terror and aggression in her eyes, and when I tried to push past, she grabbed hold of a filing trolley and pulled it across my path. I tried to go around the other side, but she grabbed the corner of the desk in one hand and the window sill in the other, and blocked me there too. I pretended to rush back to the other end of the desk, to try and get past the trolley. She too moved in that direction, clambering over the chair. One of her leg braces got caught in the mechanical parts of the chair, and it took her a moment to free herself. That gave me the advantage I needed to dart back to the side of the table near the window and trap her between the trolley and the high back of the office chair. I turned towards the desk saw that the monitor screen was black. The machine wasn’t even on.
She sighed heavily, bent down and switched on the data-processing device. Eventually she found the Internal-Communications-Listings-of-House-Workers and pointed and shrugged again. I went over and typed the name in and found an extension number. I dialled it but nobody answered.
By this time it was midday. I decided to find The Doctor’s office and go there in person. I asked how I could find out where the office was, and my diminutive adversary told me: “I have no idea. It is my first day.”
I was beginning to understand where Franz Kafka had been writing from – but there would be many more surprises in store.