In Jay Cantor’s 1988 novel, “Krazy Kat,” the feline heroine praises Rube Goldberg contraptions: “Krazy liked having her mind pulled through one of Goldberg’s gadgets. He was a real artist; he had a vision.” Cantor’s vision often focuses on public figures: George Herriman’s cartoon cat and J. Robert Oppenheimer; Che Guevara in Cantor’s first novel, “The Death of Che Guevara”; and now Kafka in “Forgiving the Angel.” These works and his graphic novel, “Aaron and Ahmed,” are contraptions of mixed materials: animal and human characters in “Krazy Kat,” fact and invention in “Che Guevara,” lucid writing and hallucinatory illustrations (by James Romberger) in “Aaron and Ahmed,” and now a story putatively by Kafka and stories about contemporaries who loved him. All of Cantor’s fiction (including “Great Neck,” his un-gadgety novel of the American 1960s and ’70s) pulls the reader’s mind through sensitive history: atom bomb tests at Alamogordo; the Cuban revolution; the events of 9/11; and, in “Forgiving the Angel,” Stalin’s gulag and Hitler’s death camps.
Cantor is most Goldbergian in “Forgiving the Angel,” linking disparate times, places and characters in an ingeniously unified and admirably purposeful fiction. In the first (and title) story, he recounts the last days of Kafka in 1924 and, jumping to Israel four decades later, the last years of his longtime friend and literary executor, Max Brod, whom Kafka told to burn his numerous unpublished writings. Near the end of Brod’s life, he is still trying to understand why an angel of sensitivity would ask his best friend to carry out such a difficult directive. (Fortunately for us, Brod refused.) In his guilty resentment and convoluted rationalizing, Brod calls to mind Kafka’s protagonists attempting to cope with powerful authority and Kafka’s own questioning of God as the “Absolute.” “Forgiving the Angel” is a wonderful story, full of high-order conundrums and low-order details about sex and sickness as Cantor makes Kafka and Brod doubles to make us wonder who, really, was the angel. Easy to like, the story is the lure with which Cantor entices readers to investigate the less familiar lives and more disturbing narratives to come.
The next offering, “A Lost Story by Franz Kafka,” is only 10 pages and more Borgesian than Kafkaesque: It purports to be a story by Kafka about a scholar who discovers an unpublished manuscript by Kafka. Although the story within the story is about Abraham, he is not the patriarch of Kafka’s parable “Abraham.” Cantor’s character obsesses about killing the goat in place of Isaac. “A Lost Story” is humorous and contains many references to other Kafka fictions, but carries less emotional charge than “Forgiving the Angel” — unless the “found” manuscript, in which Kafka addresses Brod, was actually written by Cantor’s Brod. Images carried over from the first story imply that possibility, and Abraham’s requesting mercy for disobeying God’s command is analogous to Brod’s defending himself for betraying Kafka’s order. Would one forge a fiction for forgiveness? To slightly paraphrase one of Kafka’s own characters: The power of “guilt is never to be doubted.”
Kafka, Brod says, was his “true love.” Cantor’s last two stories are about women who also loved Kafka and whose lives were tangled in the horrors of European history he foreshadowed with “In the Penal Colony.” The late love of Kafka’s life, Dora Diamant, referred to herself as his widow. In “Lusk and Marianne,” Dora has married the Communist Lusk Lask in Berlin, where he is tortured by the Gestapo in 1933. After the couple flee to the Soviet Union, Lusk is tortured and disappears for years into a Siberian labor camp, never to be seen again by Dora. Only near the end of his life does Lusk finally abandon his mistaken faith in his god Lenin and try to persuade Marianne (his adult daughter with Dora) that her faith in an angelic Kafka is similarly misplaced. Like Brod as forger, Lusk imitates the man Marianne calls “first father,” inventing instructive parables supposedly by Kafka to send to her in England. Kafka’s characters often wait for a message they never receive. Lusk’s parables are never read, and the mentally ill Marianne dies like the Hunger Artist of her “crippled” angel.
“Milena Jasenska and ‘The World the Camps Made’ ” is also rather unforgiving of Kafka. In 1941, in the Nazis’ Ravensbrück concentration camp, Milena — a leftist Czech journalist, Kafka’s translator and “mistress” without consummation — befriends a woman Cantor calls Eva, based closely on the Holocaust survivor and author Margarete Buber-Neumann. Milena’s questions about Eva’s Communist past and their physical intimacy restore Eva to emotional life. Former ideologues like Lusk Lask, the women now take sustenance from concrete facts and bodily “details.” A prisoner named Inge, once an admirer of Rilke (the poet of angels), warns that their “details were not angels,” but Eva’s survival and her decision to write about the camps contradict Inge and conclude Cantor’s developing critique of Kafka’s abstraction and asceticism, his debilitating — yet also inspiring — tendency to what the novelist Walker Percy called “angelism.” Both God and Kafka, Milena says, are guilty of withholding themselves from life.
In an author’s note, Cantor credits books about Dora and Milena along with standard biographies of Kafka. Scholars and people who read only Kafka may not forgive Cantor for some of his extrapolations and alterations, particularly in the last two stories. For example, according to the biography of Dora, Marianne Lask did not, as Cantor has it, declare her long-absent father dead in order to get British citizenship. For most readers, though, the question will probably be: How much does Cantor depend on Kafka’s life and work for the appeal of “Forgiving the Angel”? A lot in the first two stories, less in the final two. Realistic rather than allegorical in style, the stories about women foreground the atrocities of politics, while Kafka is a background ghost. “Milena Jasenska” is the more intense and affecting because it is compressed in space and time; “Lusk and Marianne” sometimes feels thin because it covers so many locales and decades in the characters’ lives. But the story’s details about Lusk’s punishing years in the gulag contribute an essential part to Cantor’s whole. “Forgiving the Angel” is a scrambled historical sequence (rather than a collection per se) that demonstrates throughout that humans’ need for the “Indestructible” or the “Incorruptible” can lead to corruption — spiritual, political, moral and physical.
In the final pages of “Forgiving the Angel,” Eva thinks about writing a book influenced by Kafka, an ending that takes us around to reread Cantor’s beginning, to re-evaluate in light of later stories the apolitical Kafka and the Zionist Brod in that first story, and to wonder again just who is the angel there and in the pieces that follow. In this formal circularity, ethical ambiguity and scrupulous undecidability, Cantor’s fiction is a worthy homage to Kafka. “Forgiving the Angel” is also an original work that pulls our mind through the kind of biographical and historical contraption that Kafka would probably never have put together, would probably not, as a Jew in Czechoslovakia, have survived to put together.
FORGIVING THE ANGELFour Stories for Franz KafkaBy Jay Cantor209 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $24.95.