A Kafkaesque family drama

In the decades since he died, the work of Franz Kafka has become synonymous with nightmarishly complex scenarios.

In the decades since he died, the work of Franz Kafka has become synonymous with nightmarishly complex scenarios.

His most famous piece of writing, Metamorphosis, is about a man waking up to find that he’s been turned into a bug.

His words had such an impact that the term Kafkaesque has entered the English language meaning something “marked by a senseless, disorienting, often menacing complexity.”

According to Kafka, that was all thanks to his father, Hermann.

“My writing was all about you; all I did there, after all, was to bemoan what I could not bemoan upon your breast,” he wrote in a 50-page undelivered letter.

Written in 1919, the letter has become the central document biographers use to examine Kafka’s early life, according to Canadian actor and playwright Alon Nashman.

For the last 10 years, Nashman has performed the one-man show that he adapted from the letter, Kafka and Son. The play will be in Whitehorse this week.

The letter that it is based on is intensely personal and critical.

“You asked me recently why I maintain that I am afraid of you,” Kafka starts off.

“As usual, I was unable to think of any answer to your question, partly for the very reason that I am afraid of you, and partly because an explanation of the grounds for this fear would mean going into far more details than I could even approximately keep in mind while talking.”

Both men died long before the letter was found and published, so we may never know how accurately Kafka described their relationship.

On stage Nashman plays both Kafka and his father, who is conjured up in parts of the letter.

Instead of being a biographical retelling, the letter is about Kafka’s struggle to understand his father and imagine his point of view, Nashman said.

He described it as “one mind, that’s split down the middle.”

“He is trying to whittle away at the truth and he’s trying to address his own prejudice. He’s trying to give his father his view,” said Nashman before boarding a plane to Whitehorse Monday.

“He’s trying not to be vindictive and irrational but he can’t help himself. And that’s the drama of it. It is very much a subjective version of events and you’re watching somebody struggle.”

As the story goes, Kafka asked his mom to deliver the letter. She read it and thought that was a bad idea.

“Arguably it was the good choice,” Nashman said.

“Sometimes it’s necessary to write everything down to purge yourself of whatever is hindering you. But then you don’t necessarily need to confront the other party with it.”

As he writes, Kafka is sorrowful and vindictive as well as funny and analytical, Nashman said. He’s living an unhappy life still living at home, a petty bureaucrat and a failed artist.

Kafka would never know the success that his writing would achieve. He died at 41, about five years after he wrote the letter.

Nashman calls Kafka one of the most self-revealing writers of all time.

“He shows parts of himself that most of us would shy away from and even writers, even autobiographical writers, don’t reveal their inner shame and pain as clearly as he did and with such an absurd sense of humour as he did.”

Nashman has performed across North America and Europe but acknowledges that Kafka never intended for the intensely personal letter to be made so public.

“At the same time, there’s a quality to even his journal writing that has an eye to an audience outside of himself,” he said.

“It’s hard to explain, but when you experience the play you’ll see that he seems to be appealing to an outside force to side with him as if he’s arguing to a jury or a judge.”

It’s that part of the writing, the plea to an outside audience, that allows Nashman to feel comfortable that he’s not doing anything improper airing the dirty laundry on stage, he said.

“He’s making a case that if any objective person were looking at this, they would side with him. Then, in a very clever and self-effacing way, he imagines what the father would have said in response to his arguments.”

For audiences, the play is a challenge to look at your own relationships with the same level of honesty and scrutiny, Nashman said.

“It invites a self-reflection. It’s not so much about Kafka and learning about his life, it’s an invitation to get involved in a wrestle with one’s own psyche.”

The play is happening at the Old Fire Hall on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Shows start at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $22.

Contact Ashley Joannou at