Here’s a good story for a cold December night: Franz Kafka’s cryptic, hallucinatory tale of “A Country Doctor.”
Written in Prague during the icy winter of 1916-1917, Kafka’s story unfolds in one long paragraph like a fevered nightmare. “I was in great perplexity,” says the narrator, an old doctor, as he sets out in a blizzard at night on an urgent but vague mission. But he can’t go anywhere. His horse, worn out by the winter, has just died and his servant girl is going door to door pleading for help. A surreal sequence of events follow.
“A Country Doctor” is permeated with the qualities John Updike found so compelling in Kafka: “a sensation of anxiety and shame whose center cannot be located and therefore cannot be placated; a sense of an infinite difficulty within things, impeding every step; a sensitivity acute beyond usefulness, as if the nervous system, flayed of its old hide of social usage and religious belief, must record every touch as pain.”
In 2007 the award-winning Japanese animator Koji Yamamura made a 21-minute film (see above) which captures some of the strangeness and beauty of Kafka’s story. It seems somehow appropriate that the dreamlike narrative has been transmuted into a form and language unknown to Kafka. And if you aren’t familiar with the original, you can read a translation of “A Country Doctor” by Willa and Edwin Muir. You can also find Kafka’s stories in our collection of Free Audio Books and Free eBooks.