I read a short story by Haruki Murakami called Samsa in Love that appeared in the New Yorker yesterday. It tells the story of Gregor Samsa who wakes up one morning and finds to his surprise that he has turned into a human. Everything feels odd to him. His body has become soft, he finds it difficult to walk with only two legs, and dressing up is impossible because he doesn’t know how to use his hands. He has no idea how he has got that way – the house is empty, abandoned in the middle of breakfast, so he can’t ask anyone. He isn’t completely ignorant. He understands that he is human and he rues that he hasn’t been turned into a fish or a sunflower. He is afraid of birds. All these worries he will put behind, though, when a locksmith arrives in the form of a hunchbacked girl and, as the title suggests, Gregor falls in love. The end is very hopeful, even though there is a hint of a war brewing.
It’s a wonderful story and a great homage to Kafka’s Metamorphosis (1915). That, of course, tells the opposite story. Gregor Samsa, a travelling salesman, wakes up one morning to find that he has turned into a giant insect. He doesn’t question how it could have happened, nor is any explanation given. He is abhorrent to his family who doesn’t understand that he has retained some of his humanity despite his looks. Little by little, though, he begins to deteriorate and becomes more insect-like. Eventually, the family can’t take it any longer and – dutifully – Gregor dies. The end is very hopeful in this story too; his parents and sister who had relied solely on Gregor’s income have learned to take care of themselves, and it’s possible that Gregor’s sister, Greta, might see herself married one day.
I’ve had to read Metamorphosis twice before; first at school and the second time at the university. On both times, it was important to learn how to analyse a novel, to identify its climax and turning point, and its motives and themes. Thus pressured, it was difficult to simply read and enjoy the story. Not much of it had remained with me either.
Inspired by Samsa in Love, I read Metamorphosis today and enjoyed it very much. I didn’t give a thought for novel analysis. Instead, I tried to identify some of the details Murakami had used in his story. Gregor’s family send for a locksmith at the beginning of Kafka’s story that then isn’t needed; that the locksmith arrives in Samsa in Love could suggest it takes place right after Gregor has first turned to an insect. Maybe the family has abandoned the house in horror having discovered the transformation that is then reversed in their absence.
Samsa in Love could take place after Gregor’s death too. At the end of Kafka’s story, the family leaves the house for a day of fun, ignoring their cleaning lady’s amused announcement that the creature has been taken care of. Maybe she had noticed that Gregor had turned back to human. Gregor in Murakami’s story seems used to being an insect so perhaps he had been that way for a long time already.
Both stories are great. Murakami’s language is fresher and his expressions are more forward, but Kafka’s story isn’t in any way hampered with the old-fashioned tone. Both are worth reading. Kafka has endured for almost a century already; only time will tell if Murakami’s homage has similar staying power.