Pushkin Press isn’t a publisher many of us think of when looking for manga, off the beaten path or otherwise. They aren’t entirely off the radar, though – while their main imprint publishes contemporary Japanese fiction, their Pushkin Vertigo imprint has been bringing mystery classics, such as The Decagon House Murders and its sequel The Mill House Murders to English-reading audiences, as well as Seishi Yokomizo’s long-running Kousuke Kindaichi mystery series, albeit out of order. Given the publisher’s sensibility, it feels like it was only a matter of time before they dipped their toes in the waters of avant-garde or literarily minded manga.
Kafka certainly fits both of those descriptors. Drawn by the brother-sister team known as Kyōdai Nishioka, it adapts nine of German-language author Franz Kafka‘s short stories, varying in length. All text is taken directly from Kafka‘s originals, and in the case of shorter pieces, like “The Vulture,” the text is reproduced almost in its entirety, parceled out to fit the panels. As translator David Yang notes in his afterword, this puts us in an interesting place translation-wise. Kafka‘s original German text was first translated into Japanese and then later translated again into English, making for an almost telephone-like chain. (Yang, it should be noted, translates both German and Japanese professionally.) Fortunately for us, this isn’t necessarily noticeable, and the stories retain the feel of Kafka‘s work in the texts. But it does offer us a different way to think about the tales, filtered through a series of linguistic sieves to a version that makes the most sense to the artists, translator, and reader.
Also interesting is that at least one of the artists had distinct reservations about making a manga adaptation of The Metamorphosis at all. Kafka himself was highly resistant to anyone creating images of the creature Gregor turns into, which raises the question of how to make the story work in a visual medium while remaining faithful to the original author’s intent. I am pleased to say that this is accomplished impressively well, although The Metamorphosis is probably my least favorite of the stories in the book. We never see Gregor, either as a human or as a creature, and we barely even see things from his point of view; instead, we get a sort of omniscient viewpoint that shows the other characters, the food, and the backgrounds with the text anchoring the panels. The story’s intent still comes through, as well as the idea of Gregor’s sister almost feeding off of his slow disappearance, but without anything more descriptive than Kafka‘s original text provided.
Unlike most traditional manga, none of the artwork incorporates speech bubbles. All dialogue and narration are provided in text boxes or simply over the art, which gives the book almost the feel of being read to rather than read. This is particularly true of “The Bucket Knight,” where the artwork takes a much more fantastical approach, showing the main character riding his bucket through the skies in search of coal for his fire, which could be argued was metaphorical in the prose story. Here, it takes on overtones of Hans Christian Andersen‘s “The Little Match Girl” with literary fairy tale imagery of someone being left to freeze by an uncaring world. Likewise, “Jackals and Arabs” has a folkloric quality brought about by the art employed to tell the tale, while none of the characters in any of the stories could be described as being “realistic” (the closest appearing in “A Country Doctor”), here the way that the animals are drawn helps to remove the piece even further from every day, which is undeniably helpful, since the story can be interpreted as having racist overtones to the modern reader.
In most cases, it is up to the reader to make sense of the many interpretations possible in Kafka‘s work. The only story that seems to offer a specific reading of the tale is in the first, “The Concerns of a Patriarch.” This is because the odradek is drawn as a six-sided star, or Star of David, and while the cross-piece is sometimes read to be a crucifix, here it is fully drawn to look like one. This leans heavily into the school of thought that holds the mysterious object as a symbol of tradition stretching down the years. Although other readings of Kyōdai Nishioka‘s version are undoubtedly possible, this one appears to fit it comfortably.
Kafka can certainly be read by those unfamiliar with or fond of the author. The art style’s heavy lines, exaggerated shapes, and blocky patterns are fascinating, and the use of lights and darks helps to give it a woodcut feel. Readers with a bit of a background in the author may get more out of it, but if you’re interested in manga interpretations of Western works or manga that aim for a different artistic angle than we typically see, this is worth picking up.