On Reading Kafka’s Diaries Before and After Pandemic

By Aashna Nagpal

I remember this exact moment. I was on the terrace, lying down to soak the winter sun on a mattress. I was reading Franz Kafka’s Diaries: 1910-1923 while a Ray LaMontagne song played in the background. One of my little quirks is that I need to listen to a song playing on a loop while I am reading a book or I get distracted by my own thoughts. Both the book by Kafka and the song playing had so much to do with the emptiness of life, yet in that moment I felt so full. Full of calm. Full of hope. It sounds Romantic but it wasn’t. I felt so full because of the simplicity of that moment, realising how little I needed to feel that way. It was an uncomplicated feeling and yet it evades language.

Only a few weeks later, the sun became too much, a deadly riot took place in my city and my college was shut down because of the pandemic. That feeling stopped feeling simple anymore. It felt distant, a thick veil of fog kept it out of my reach. Unable to read anything new because I felt so overwhelmed, I searched for comfort in the familiar. I decided to read Kafka’s diaries on my phone again. Unexpectedly, it felt like I was reading a completely different book. The bleakness of a single month transformed the way in which I perceived Kafka’s diaries. Kafka’s iterations of his loneliness, his frustrations, his anxieties and his oddities came across in a completely different way. Sentences that I didn’t even register in my first reading stood out now, louder than any song playing in the background.

If I was asked to tell a single thematic concern of all of Kafka’s writings, I have to say estrangement. Several months after 2020 has ended, several of us are still trying to process the events of the year. The estrangement is multidimensional- estrangement from the people we used to meet everyday, from the world which we used to experience and the worst of all, estrangement from ourselves. Kafka writes, “ A segment has been cut out of the back of his head. The sun looks in and the whole world with it. It makes him nervous, it distracts him from his work, and moreover it irritates him that he should be the very one excluded from the spectacle.” Shut within four walls and stewing in our thoughts, having no option but to confront things we successfully evaded before the pandemic. I feel these words scratch and gnaw my insides as I attempt to digest them.

After having been in the pandemic for more than a year and a half now, having gone through the traumatic second wave where I and my family got infected, I am sure that if I read Kafka’s Diaries again for the third time — it will be unlike either of my previous readings. I will hold off on that though, I am carrying enough scratchy words under my skin for now.

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