The doctor searches in vain for any sign of sickness in his young patient, but can find none. The family insists that the boy is deathly ill, and piles of bloody towels attest to the fact. The little boy even groans that he is in pain, and begs the doctor to let him die – but still, the doctor can see nothing wrong. Suddenly, as the doctor runs his hands over the boy’s side, a deep and horrible wound appears as if by magic, and at the same moment the doctor’s horse (who had mysteriously died the night before) begins pushing its nose through the window and whinnying frantically at the terrified doctor.

The writer smiling in his hometown

The writer seemingly happy in his hometown.

This is one of the climactic scenes from Franz Kafka’s short story, A Country Doctor (1919). Like much of Kafka’s work, the story combines a surreal, dreamlike darkness with a focus on the work of bureaucrats and straight-laced officials – in this case, a doctor. Although the story should not be analyzed in terms of any direct symbolism, it was clearly influenced by Kafka’s experiences in Prague and the pain he witnessed and experienced there. Throughout the story, the doctor struggles to make sense of his role and surroundings as they become increasingly senseless and horrifying. He continuously clings to his social standing as a doctor, but this does not help him to understand or cope with the horrors all around him.

Similarly, the citizens of Prague suffered the horrors of World War I and still clung to social roles that, in Kafka’s view, were not sufficient to give their lives any sense of meaning. After the story was published, the nightmares in Prague would only continue: another war, followed by a period of intense ethnic strife and a violently oppressive Communist regime. Kafka, who died in 1924, would not live to see these horrors inflicted on his city – but he saw their beginning, and prophetically predicted the loss of meaning that would result.

Kafka’s last metamorphosis

Kafka’s last metamorphosis.
Photo by Toni Almodóvar Escuder

Kafka was born to a Jewish family and grew up speaking German in the multi-ethnic city of Prague. In the aftermath of World War I, his choice of language marked him out as an ethnic German, and he was ostracized by Czech nationalists who saw all things German as part of the invading enemy. This ethnic conflict only worsened after World War II, when many nationalists saw Kafka’s works as Nazi propaganda (this is of course ridiculous since Kafka was a Jew – but his enemies, like most violent ethno-nationalists, were not particularly adept at using reason). Fortunately, with the collapse of Communism and the rise of the new Czech Republic, such ignorant racism retreated and the works of Kafka gained their rightful place as some of Europe’s finest literary achievements. Today, the citizens of Prague are proud to be associated with this haunted genius, and memorials to his greatness can be found throughout the City of a Hundred Spires.