by Vicky Raab
Congratulations, graduates, and good luck. To cheer you on in your search for gainful employment, remember that literature offers countless lessons for moguls and misfits in the making. For starters, why not let Karl Rossmann, the clueless young hero of Kafka’s “Amerika: The Missing Person,” (the 2008 Schocken translation, by Mark Harman) help you maneuver the maze of the job-interview and recruitment process. Kafka left the work unfinished, but he got as far as securing an ambiguous position for Karl in the Theatre of Oklahama, a fact celebrated by the German artist Martin Kippenberger in his installation “The Happy End of Franz Kafka’s ‘Amerika,’ ” which ran recently at MoMA (Peter Schjeldahl reviewed it in our March 9th issue). Below, a Kafka-and-Kippenberger slide show of Karl’s quest:
To the question whether he had been unemployed he simply responded, “Yes.” “Where were you employed last?” the gentleman insisted. Karl was about to answer when the gentleman raised his index finger and repeated: “Employed last!” Karl had understood the question correctly the first time; brushing off that last remark with an involuntary movement of his head, he answered: “In an office.” This was certainly true, but if the gentleman had gone on to ask what kind of office it was, he would have had to lie. But rather than doing so, the gentleman asked a question that could easily be answered truthfully: “Were you satisfied there?” “No,” Karl cried, almost cutting him off.
Karl noticed through a side glance that the leader was smiling slightly; Karl regretted having answered so heedlessly, but it had simply been too tempting to shout “No,” for throughout his last period in service his sole wish had been that some unknown employer would walk in and ask that very question. Besides, that answer could also put him at a disadvantage since the gentleman could now ask why he hadn’t been satisfied.
But instead the gentleman merely asked: “For what kind of job do you think you are suited?” This question could be a trap, for why did he ask, since Karl had already been taken on as an actor; he could not bring himself to explain that he did not feel especially suited to the theatrical profession, though he realized full well he was not.
He therefore evaded the question and, at the risk of appearing defiant, said: “I saw the poster in the city and signed up because it stated that you could make use of everybody.” “That we already know,” the gentleman said, falling silent and thereby underscoring his insistence on obtaining an answer to his previous question. “I’ve been taken on as an actor,” said Karl, in a hesitant voice so that the gentleman might understand the difficult situation the last question had created for him. “Well,” said Karl—and all his hopes of having found a position began to fade—”I don’t know if I’m suited to acting. But I’ll certainly try very hard to carry out each and every assignment.
Karl said: “I wanted to become an engineer.” It wasn’t easy to say so, for he was acutely aware of his track record in America and realized how ridiculous it was to dredge up that old memory of having once wanted to become an engineer—would he have ever really become one, even in Europe?—but since that was the only answer he could come up with, it was the one he gave. But the gentleman took this seriously, as seriously as he took everything else. “Well,” he said, “you probably can’t become an engineer right away, but the most appropriate course for you right now would be to take on some simple work as a technician.” Certainly,” said Karl, who was quite satisfied; if he accepted this offer, it would of course mean that he’d be taken out of the actors’ group and put in with the technicians, but he believed that being in such a position would really allow him to prove his worth. Besides, he kept repeating to himself, what mattered was not so much the kind of work he did as finding a lasting foothold somewhere.
“But are you strong enough for the more strenuous kind of work?” the gentleman asked. “Oh yes,” said Karl. Whereupon the gentleman asked Karl to come closer and felt his arm. “He’s a strong lad,” he said, taking Karl’s arm and drawing him toward the leader. Smiling, the leader nodded, held out his hand to Karl, and without standing up, said: “Then we’re all set. Everything will be checked again in Oklahama. Bring honor to our recruiting troupe!” Karl bowed in farewell; he wanted to say goodbye to the other gentleman, but as if his work were already completed, the latter was already walking up and down the platform with his head raised.
As Karl descended the stairs, a sign was hoisted on a signboard near the steps: “Negro, technician.” Since everything was falling into place so easily, Karl would have had few regrets if his real name had appeared on the signboard. Everything had been so carefully arranged, for already waiting for him at the foot of the steps was a servant who fastened a band around his arm. And when Karl lifted his arm to see the words written on the band, he saw that the inscription was completely accurate: “technician.”
(Images of exhibit reproduced with the permission of the estate of Martin Kippenberger.)