Kafka's first novel, which he left unfinished, opens with a teenager called Karl arriving in America. He has been sent into exile by his family after a fling with the maid which left her pregnant. On leaving the boat he realises he has forgotten his umbrella and, entrusting his suitcase to a stranger on the dock, he returns to his room. There he meets the stoker and, hearing his tale of persecution at the hands of the senior engineer, suggests they go to talk to the captain.
Karl pleads the stoker's case somewhat fruitlessly but it is these elements that lay the foundations for the rest of the story. We follow Karl as he moves from one grotesquely unjust situation to another, always fruitlessly pleading his innocence and always concerned for the safety of his suitcase.
Amerika is frequently described as Kafka's lightest, most humourous work but I didn't see it that way at all. Karl's travails are actually quite depressing. At every turn he is thrown into a situation that he can't control and from which he cannot extricate himself.
Kafka's America, perhaps deliberately, is disconcertingly unreal. California is on the East Coast, for example, and Boston is connected to New York by a bridge. It may just be that Kafka wanted to demonstrate that the location was unimportant but for me it simply heightened the dissonance between Karl and the world of the novel.
At first, each new situation in which Karl finds himself at first feels as if it will be ok. It seems as if Karl has landed on his feet until, through no fault of his own, things take a turn for the worse.
The book ends abruptly - it is, after all, unfinished. The final sections are fragments and it is not clear what Kafka intended to do with them.
We leave Karl feeling optimistic about his latest situation but it is hard not to believe that events will soon conspire against him. It's certainly not how Kafka meant for the book to end but it gives the impression that Karl will be propelled from one unpleasant scenario to another forever.