Amsterdam International Electronic Journal for Cultural Narratology (AJCN)

Amsterdam International Electronic Journal for Cultural Narratology (AJCN)

Narrative and Ethics: Conrad, Kafka, Sebald

Jakob Lothe

University of Oslo

Focusing on significant aspects of narrative and ethics in three fictional texts, this essay starts from the premise that, both generally and certainly in the narratives under consideration here, there is a close and thematically productive interplay of these two dimensions: while narrative can effectively present characters and plots involving ethical problems of considerable complexity, theoretically expounded ethical issues become more nuanced, and more pressingly relevant, if given narrative shape. Turning first to Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness, I will discuss how Conrad uses the character and narrator Marlow to dramatize awkward moments of doubt and difficult choice, such as that experienced by Marlow when confronted with, but unable to help, the dying blacks in the so-called "Grove of death" passage. A main point argued in the following discussion of Franz Kafka's "In der Strafkolonie" ("In the Penal Colony") is that, in spite of the great difference between Kafka's main character and Conrad's, the position and attitudinal perspective of "der Forschungsreisende" ("the traveller") are also revealed by the narrative to be complicated and morally dubious. Finally, I will briefly consider how, in his novel Austerlitz, W. G. Sebald explores historical and ethical dimensions of the Holocaust by using a frame narrator who, in common with the narrator in Heart of Darkness, becomes irresistibly attracted to a teller whose narrative seems to circle round, and hesitantly approach, what remains an empty centre. As these are large issues which cannot be adequately considered here, I will delimit my talk by focussing on the narratives' beginnings, relating narrative beginning both to the story's title and to what follows. And yet my comments on these complex beginnings are unavoidably selective-there is a lot I do not say, or fail to see.

If, following Hillis Miller's valuable book Narrative, we divide narrative into beginnings, middles and endings, it would seem that, as far as the ethical dimension of narrative is concerned, more has been written about endings than about beginnings. This is understandable, for a narrative's ending is often imbued with an ethical element or thrust-for instance in the form of a concluding comment by a narrator who still, that is at the point of narrative closure, appears to be reliable and trustworthy. One illustrative is the ending of the narrative whose beginning I will consider shortly, Conrad's Heart of Darkness. When the frame narrator, impressed by Marlow's story which he has just been retelling and thus passing on to the authorial audience, ends by suggesting that the waterway "seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness" (77) a significant aspect is added to the key word "darkness": it does not only refer to what (outside the fiction) the Belgians did in the Congo in the 1890s or (inside the fiction) what Kurtz did to the blacks since he "lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts" (57) but also, at least as one interpretative possibility, to the subtle ways in which all Europeans are implicated in the historical process of imperialism.

Even though a narrative's ethical implications are often clearer at the end than at the beginning, I will argue that in many narratives, and certainly in the three briefly considered here, the ethical element or factor is presented right at the start. This kind of immediate highlighting of the ethical dimension is achieved, I posit, in large part by narrative means. The key narrative elements I want to focus on are the relationship between frame narrator and main narrator, between narrator and main character, and variations of perspective linked to both of these relations as well as to the authorial audience. In my chosen texts, all of these relations are imbued with a significant ethical dimension.

By perspective I mean not just the point of orientation in a narrative, the one who sees, as Genette puts it (186), but also the point of perception, one who perceives or is looked at. In the visual arts, I can think of no better illustration of this double effect of perspective than Velázquez's Las Meninas, which I will use as Eingang or introduction to my discussion of the three narratives.

Completed in 1656, Diego Velázquez's Las Meninas is at once a product of, and a significant contribution to, The Renaissance and the Age of the Baroque. And yet this remarkable painting is also something more than, and different from, the period of which it is a constituent element. For the French philosopher Michel Foucault, Las Meninas problematizes representation in a radically new way. It does so not least by simultaneously distorting and extending our habitual perspective. Who or what is the orienting perspective in Las Meninas? Determining what we see and what we do not see, perspective is linked to sight and insight, but also to limited insight and ignorance. Moreover, as Mieke Bal has convincingly argued (143), perspective can indicate perception as well: what it means and feels to be looked at in a certain way and in a given situation. Focalizing and delimiting the visual field, perspective is associated with choice (what to see or notice and what to omit or exclude); concomitantly, perspective is also something that can be chosen for us, something that can be determined by those in a position of power and influence.

This twofold characteristic of perspective is brilliantly presented by Velázquez. We see a group of nine people who appear to be silent, and we note that several of then are looking in the same direction. At first we think they are looking at us, but then we realize that their eyes are directed not at us as spectators but at the Spanish royal couple-King Philip IV and Queen Mariana-who we must imagine sitting or standing exactly where we are. They are being painted by Velázquez, who has made himself a character in his own painting. We would not have known this without the mirror, which is positioned in the middle of the painting and in which we can see a blurred image of the king and queen. Relegating them to a mirror image, Velázquez highlights the minor characters, while at the same time problematizing and challenging the relationship between painter, picture, and spectator. The effect is tentacular: looking at the painting we are being looked at by its creator, who thus includes us by drawing us into the picture. Similarly, in the different medium of verbal prose, we are drawn into the discourse of texts such as Heart of Darkness, "In der Strafkolonie," and Austerlitz.

In Conrad's most famous story, Marlow tells about his journey to Africa, up the Congo river, and his meeting with Kurtz: the highly successful agent who is collecting and delivering more ivory than any other. Marlow is shocked to discover that Kurtz, the representative and in one sense the personification of Europe and European civilization, has been involved in, and probably responsible for, barbarian killings and rites. Kurtz dies uttering the words: "The horror! The horror!" (69). Returning to Europe and meeting with Kurtz's Intended in the sephulcral city, Marlow, who says he detests lying because it reminds him of death, tells her that Kurtz's last word "was-your name" (77).

In the first paragraph of the novella, Marlow has not yet started to tell his story. The narrator here is a frame narrator, who after having presented the narrative situation introduces Marlow and then becomes a listener to Marlow's story. We are introduced to a group of five persons on a sailing-boat that is anchored waiting for the tide to turn:

          The Nellie, a cruising yawl, swung to her anchor without a flutter of the sails and           was a rest. The flood had made, the wind was nearly calm, and being bound down     the river the only thing for it was to come to and wait for the turn of the tide.

The sea-reach of the Thames stretched before us like the beginning of an interminable waterway. In the offing the sea and the sky were welded together without a joint, and in the luminous space the tanned sails of the barges drifting up with the tide seemed to stand still in red clusters of canvas, sharply peaked with gleams of varnished sprits. A haze rested on the low shores that ran out to sea in vanishing flatness. The air was dark above Gravesend, and farther back still seemed condensed into a mournful gloom brooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth. (3)

 Remarkably static, this narrative situation is possessed of various constituent elements of literary impressionism ("haze," "grey . air," "dusk"). The pronoun 'us' refers to the five characters aboard the Nellie. One of them is Marlow, who is to perform crucial functions both as narrator and as character in the tale. As indicated already, however, it is significant that not Marlow but an anonymous first-person narrator is narrating here. At first sight, the novella's narrative situation seems to resemble the epic 'proto-situation' in which, as Walter Benjamin observes in his classic essay "The Storyteller," a teller tells his or her audience something that happened. The resemblance is nonetheless superficial-not only because the concept of the epic proto-situation excludes the device of the frame narrator but, more importantly, because in Heart of Darkness the narrative act, its motivations, and its thematic implications are much more problematic.

While the frame narrator is often the most authoritative and knowledgeable of the narrators in a story, this is not so in Heart of Darkness. For although the frame narrator passes on Marlow's story and appears to be reliable, his insights are distinctly inferior to Marlow's. The frame narrator's conventionality, including his reference to London as the "greatest . town on earth", increases the impact and suggestiveness of Marlow's first words: "And this also . has been one of the dark places of the earth" (5).

This narrative variation is one of the most effective in all of Conrad's fiction (cf. Lothe 1989, 21-34; cf. Lothe 2000, 167-71). Marlow's remark exposes the relative naïvety and limited insight of the frame narrator and prefigures the sombre implications of the tale he is about to tell. The comment anticipates his later reflections on the arrival of the Romans in Britain, "nineteen hundred years ago-the other day. . . ." (5). For the Romans, Marlow plausibly goes on to suggest, Britain must have seemed an inhospitable wilderness "at the very end of the world." Moreover, Marlow's opening words also foreshadow "darkness," the text's central metaphor which (like ivory) becomes a powerful symbol. Although the Romans "were men enough to face the darkness . They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force-nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others" (6-7). Even though this generalizing statement obviously refers to the Romans, it also includes a reference to the narrative Marlow is just starting. Suggesting that Marlow's level of insight is superior to that of the frame narrator, these brief observations also indicate some key characteristics of Marlow's first-person narrative: a reflective rhetoric designed to impress and persuade, a peculiar blend of personal and intellectual curiosity, and a tendency to generalize on the basis of individual experience. Conrad thus uses two narrators in Heart of Darkness, and the effect of Marlow's narrative is inseparable from the function of the frame narrator. Conrad's combined use of both narrators manipulates the reader into a position resembling that of the frame narrator's narratees, that is a position characterized by a willingness to listen patiently and by the possibility of acquiring new insight (including improved knowledge of how little we know) as a result of that listening. The similarity between the tale's effect on the narratees and that on the reader is striking. I am not, of course, claiming that our position and attitude to Marlow's story unavoidably blend into that of the narratee. But I am suggesting that one essential effect of Conrad's narrative rhetoric is to manipulate us into a position approximating to that of Marlow's listeners. This movement, which constitutes a kind of attitudinal reorientation or repositioning, is possessed of a significant ethical element in that it makes us question, or start to question, European imperialism's widespread and systematic use of violence.

The ethical thrust of this kind of narrative manipulation becomes particularly important in key passages or scenes. One such scene is that of Marlow's confrontation with a group of black slaves:

"Black shapes crouched, lay, sat between the trees, leaning against the trunks, clinging to the earth, half coming out, half effaced within the dim light, in all the attitudes of pain, abandonment, and despair. Another mine on the cliff went off followed by a slight shudder of the soil under my feet. The work was going on. The work! And this was the place where some of the helpers had withdrawn to die.

"They were dying slowly-it was very clear. They were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now, nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation lying confusedly in the greenish gloom. (17)

Just before Marlow has referred to this particular place as "the gloomy circle of some Inferno" (16). What is interesting about this intertextual echo of Dante's Inferno in our critical context is the way in which it highlights the ethical dimension of Marlow's story. Although in no way defending the extreme, and extremely brutal forms of punishment  which Dante presents, the 'sins' of the damned in Dante's Inferno are largely crimes which would be condemned in any rational society. In Conrad's novella, however, there is no corresponding rationale behind the relationship of crime and punishment. Thus, in one sense the hell encountered by Marlow in the Congo is even more gruesome than that of Dante. The 'crime' of the blacks is to be at this particular spot at this particular point in time. While they are condemned to dwell there forever, Marlow, like Dante, can move on. So does the authorial audience, but not without feeling, in common with Marlow and the frame narrator, that by doing so-leaving instead of helping-as readers we become implicated in a morally dubious act.

Turning to Kafka, we first note that there a striking similarity between the beginning of the Kafka text I now proceed to discuss and the opening of Der Process (The Trial). Kafka wrote "In der Strafkolonie" in the autumn of 1914, just after the outbreak of the First World War. On 13 August he had started Der Process, but because of the problems of beginning and developing this text, he took a two-week holiday during which he managed to complete "In der Strafkolonie." In order to briefly indicate the ethical affinity of the beginnings of these two narratives,  I want to draw attention to the way in which the passive construction "wurde . verhaftet"-the words at the end of the first sentence of Der Process-increases the uncertainty associated with the verb form "hätte" of the same sentence. Kafka's use of the subjunctive form "hätte" suggests that it remains open whether K. was arrested with good reason or on thin evidence. Perhaps the narrator does not know the reason for K.'s arrest; perhaps nobody does; perhaps there is no simple reason. One significant consequence of this kind of narrative ambiguity is to simultaneously complicate and accentuate the moral aspect of the beginning of Der Process. Since, in a presumably civilized society (the word "Rechtsstaat" is used on page 11 of Der Process) one is not arrested unless one has done or is suspected of having done something wrong, and since any arrest prompts the question of who ordered it, a fourth agent is added to those of character, narrator and implied author. This agent, a kind of court, remains enigmatic throughout. In "In der Strafkolonie" too there is a similar agent, or rather two, represented by the conflicting values and legal systems of "der alte Kommandant" ("the old commander") and "der neue Kommandant" ("the new commander"). If the court's distance from the accused in Der Process is counteracted by its all-pervasive presence in the narrative discourse, the absent old and new commanders in the short story are repeatedly referred to by the officer as conflicting agents of power and influence. In "The Penal Colony" as in Der Process, the main characters and the reader are already part of a process-the enforcement of a judgment or sentence-when the narrative discourse begins. The novel's and the short story's "real" beginnings, the beginnings of their stories, approximate to the unknown.

"In der Strafkolonie" begins thus:

"Es ist ein eigentümlicher Apparat," sagte der Offizier zu dem Forschungsreisenden und überblickte mit einem gewissermassen bewundernden Blick den ihm doch wohlbekannten Apparat. Der Reisende schien nur aus Höflichkeit der Einladung des Kommandanten gefolgt zu sein, der Exekution eines Soldaten beizuwohnen, der wegen Ungehorsam und Beleidigung des Vorgesetzten verurteilt wurden war. Das Interesse für diese Exekution war wohl auch in der Strafkolonie nicht sehr gross. Wenigstens war hier in dem tiefen, sandigen, von kahlen Abhängen ringsum abgeschlossenen keinen Tal ausser dem Offizier und dem Reisenden nur der Verurteilte, ein stumpfsinniger, breitmäuliger Mensch mit verwahrlostem Haar und Gesicht und ein Soldat zugegen, der die schwere Kette hielt, in welche die kleinen Ketten ausliefen, mit denen der Verurteilte an den Fuss- und Handknöcheln sowie am Hals gefesselt war und die untereinander durch Verbindungsketten zusammenhingen. Übrigens sah der Verurteilte so hündisch ergeben aus, dass es den Anschein hatte, als könnte man ihn frei auf den Abhängen herumlaufen lassen und müsse bei Beginn der Exekution nur pfeifen, damit er käme. (Kafka 1994, 203-04)

"It is a peculiar piece of machinery," said the officer to the traveller and with a look that contained some admiration surveyed the machine that was after all so familiar to him. It was apparently only from politeness that the traveler had accepted the invitation of the commandant, who had requested his presence at the execution of a soldier condemned to death for disobeying and insulting his superior officer. The interest in this execution, even in the penal colony, did not seem to be very great. At any rate, apart from the officer and the traveler, here in the deep, sandy little valley enclosed on all sides by bare slopes there were only the condemned man-a stupid fellow with a big mouth and unkempt hair and face-and a soldier who held the heavy chain into which the small chains ran with which the condemned man was bound at the wrists, ankles, and throat and which were further linked together by connecting chains. In fact, the condemned man looked so doggishly submissive that it seemed you could let him run around freely on the slopes and would only have to whistle at the start of the execution for him to come. (Kafka 2007, 35-36)

Even though this strange paragraph is not the short story's whole beginning, it is certainly an important part of it. We first note an interesting detail: the word "Beginn," which in German is used synonymously with "Anfang" in a manner broadly corresponding to "beginning" and "opening" in English, is actually mentioned at the end of the paragraph. The use of "Beginn" prefigures the way in which the beginning is simultaneously accentuated and problematized. One function of the word is to confirm what we have been told already, thus suggesting that we (the characters as well as the reader) are at the beginning of a course of action presumably revolving around the execution itself. At the same time, however, the phrase "Beginn der Exekution" indicates that what begins here is neither the narrative account of the crime nor, as in Der Process, of the arrest. Rather, "Beginn" is closely linked to the last stage of a trial: the implementation of what is presumably the death sentence.

Relating the title of "In der Strafkolonie" to the short story's first paragraph, we first note the correspondence between the preposition "In" and the place of the narrative. By using "in" rather than, for instance, "nach" ("to"), Kafka signals that the story's focus is on what happens here, in this particular place. There is a link between the "in" of the title and the in medias res beginning which follows. When we start reading we are already on location. Moreover, we are in place it is difficult to escape from, and where, as we have noted already, the first paragraph seems to mark the ending of a course of action rather than its beginning.

If it is significant that the word "Beginn" is mentioned towards the end of the paragraph, it is also important that the key word of the title is repeated in the text's third sentence. This word, "Strafkolonie," is thematically productive here: repeating and thus calling renewed attention to the title, it colours the information provided about the event, the characters, and the narrative's time and place. The short story's four characters are all introduced in the first paragraph: "der Offizier," "der Forschungsreisende," "der Verurteilte" and "der Soldat." What brings them together is the implementation of the punishment. Thus "Strafe" is actualized once again. The repetition of the words signals that the reader may be asked to consider, possibly even reject, the form of punishment practiced in and represented by the colony.

The time of the story seems to be unspecified yet modern; the place appears to be somewhere far from Europe. Already at this early stage, before the officer explains the details of the apparatus to the traveller, we sense that this "Apparat" is a product of modernity, of European industrialization. Hans Dieter Zimmermann is right to note that the officer is a European "above all in his admiration for technique, this European invention, which in the apparatus has reached a degree of perfection: in the apparatus which has no purpose but to torture the condemned man for twelve hours and then to kill him" (Zimmermann 159, my translation). The historical process of European modernity is linked to European imperialism and European colonization of other continents. Although no precise location of the "Strafkolonie" is given, its great distance from Europe is emphasized. The officer's identity as a European establishes a link to "der Forschungsreisende," who comes from Europe. The condemned man and the soldier, however, may or may not be European; they do not seem to understand French, the colony's official language. As so often in Kafka's narratives, it is difficult to specify what the ethical implication of the constellation of characters is. And yet the ethical facet is highlighted in a way which signals a strong critique of the use of violence in general and torture and capital punishment in particular.

The narrator plays a key role in the gradual formation of the short story's ethical aspect. The third-person narrator describes the setting, introduces the characters, and reports the action (and, significantly, the lack of action). Yet there is a lot Kafka does not make his narrator do.  On a second reading of the short story, we cannot help noticing how reluctant the narrator is to position himself in relation to, and distance himself from, the event he reports. The two key factors here are, first, his limited knowledge and, second, his inability-or unwillingness-to respond morally to the horrible event he recounts. Revealing the narrator's human qualities, these factors become constituent aspects of Kafka's original variant on third-person narration. Interestingly, what may be a personal weakness on the part of the narrator is also narrative strength. As Zimmermann rightly points out, the narrator juxtaposes two perspectives: the officer's and the traveller's. And yet the narrator's attitudinal perspective approximates to that of the traveller. An early indication of this attitudinal affinity comes towards the end of the paragraph, when the narrator describes the condemned man in a manner which is not only biassed, but whose condescending attitude is linked to that of the European visitor. That the latter is a "Forschungsreisende" evidently does not exempt him from racial and cultural prejudice. As we tend to associate our position with that of the traveler, elements of our own prejudice and limited understanding are subtly activated, or at least hinted at, by Kafka's narrative rhetoric: if the narrator's and the traveller's positions are exposed as ethically dubious, so in a sense is that of the reader.  

 One important function of the tensions we have noted is to create suspense: a suspicion-vague on a first reading, much stronger on a second-that the constellation of these four very different characters may provoke a conflict, probably violent, whose outcome is uncertain. To make this point is to suggest that lurking underneath the narrative discourse of this opening paragraph are issues of power, authority, dominance, and violence. For Kafka, as for Conrad and Sebald, the ethical dimension of these issues is irrefutable.

Although the issue of influence is complex and in one sense not very interesting, there is no doubt that both Conrad and Kafka were important writers for W. G. Sebald. Born in a village in Bavaria in 1944, Sebald, like Conrad approximately one hundred years earlier, left the European continent and settled in Britain in the mid-1960s. I end this essay by commenting briefly on the beginning of his novel Austerlitz. Sadly, this book from 2001 turned out to be Sebald's last, since he was killed in a traffic accident that year.

The novel begins thus:

In the second half of the 1960s I travelled repeatedly from England to Belgium, partly for study purposes, partly for other reasons which were never entirely clear to me, staying sometimes for just one of two days, sometimes for several weeks. On one of these Belgian excursions which, as it seemed to me, always took me further and further abroad, I came on a glorious summer's day to the city of Antwerp, known to me previously only by name. Even on my arrival, as the train rolled slowly over the viaduct with its curious pointed turrets on both sides and into the dark station concourse, I had begun to feel unwell, and this sense of indisposition persisted for he whole of my visit to Belgium on that occasion. (1)

On a first reading, we may think that the first-person narrator, the "I" who travels "repeatedly from England to Beligum," is identical with Austerlitz-and perhaps also with the boy on the front cover. Yet although, as it turns out, there is a peculiarly strong resemblance between the first-person narrator and the novel's main character-who also becomes the main narrator-this beginning is actually a frame narrative whose function is to establish a narrative situation in which the two can meet, and in which Austerlitz can talk. And indeed, if the frame narrator's thoughts and feelings seem to approach those of Austerlitz already in the opening paragraph, the approximation of narrator and character becomes all the more striking once the two have met:

One of the people waiting in the Salle des pas perdus was Austerlitz, a man who then, in 1967, appeared almost youthful, with fair, curiously wavy hair of a kind I had seen elsewhere only on the German hero Siegfried in Fritz Lang's Nibelungen film. That day in Antwerp, as on all our later meetings, Austerlitz wore heavy walking boots and workman's trousers made of faded blue calico, together with a tailor-made but long outdated suit jacket. Apart from these externals he also differed from other travellers in being the only one who was not staring apathetically into space, but instead was occupied in making notes and sketches obviously relating to the room where we were both sitting-a magnificent hall more suitable, to my mind, for a state ceremony than as a place to wait for the next connection to Paris or Oostende - (6-7) 

This is the first mention of Austerlitz's name, or more accurately, the first repetition of the name we have read on the book's cover. This particular repetition is strengthened by the reference to his wavy hair, which the reader has already seen before he or she starts reading. Austerlitz is introduced as a matter of course, as though he had always been in this particular place. This is another way of saying that Austerlitz belongs nowhere. For a railway station is a public space characterized by movement-a place that for all its material stability (which it seems important to Austerlitz to register and hold on to) is characteristically experienced by travellers as unstable and transitory, suspended between arrival and departure. And yet the narrative situation it provides is essential for Austerlitz's attempts at identity formation.

Austerlitz is presented as a traveller, and yet as one who stands apart from the others. This is exactly how the frame narrator introduces Marlow in Heart of Darkness. I do not want to stress the similarities of two characters as different as Sebald's Austerlitz and Conrad's Marlow. But the two narrative situations strongly resemble each other; and Austerlitz and Marlow both tell tales, or rather fragments of tales, which make an impression on the frame narrator as narratee. In Story and Situation, Ross Chambers draws attention to the manner in which, at a deep and frequently unthematized level, the narrator's motivation to narrate is complemented by the narratee's readiness to listen, and that, for both parties, both possibilities of gain and risks of loss are involved. The narrative situations in Austerlitz offer ample illustrations of this important point. For example, by telling fragments of his story Austerlitz risks confirming his sense of loss and estrangement, yet his narration may enable him to negotiate that loss. By listening the narratee risks losing, or being drawn out of, a comfortable position of ignorance, yet the fact that he not only listens to but also retells what Austerlitz has told him suggests a learning process, and thus the possibility of gaining essential knowledge.

It is certainly not coincidental that the frame narrator's last meeting with Austerlitz is a also linked to a railway station:

Curiously enough, said Austerlitz, a few hours after our last meeting, when he had come back from the Bibliothèque Nationale and changed trains at the Gare d'Austerlitz, he had felt a premonition that he was coming closer to his father. As I might know, he said, part of the railway network had been paralyzed by a strike last Wednesday, and in the unusual silence which, as a consequence, had descended on the Gare d'Austerlitz, an idea came to him of his father's leaving Paris from this station, close as it was to his flat in the rue Barrault, soon after the Germans entered the city. (404-05)

 "I imagined," says Austerlitz to the frame narrator still serving as his narratee, "that I saw him leaning out of the window of his compartment as the train left ." (406-07). As Austerlitz connects this railway station with his father, like the Salle des pas perdus it becomes a catalyst of his memories. And as it is already linked to Austerlitz himself through its name, Gare d'Austerlitz constitutes a significant aspect of the novel's title (cf. Lothe 2008). The German words Zug and Bahn/Eisenbahn (meaning "train" and "way/railway") are semantically loaded for Sebald. On the one hand, they signal travel and possible escape (as in the case of Austerlitz); on the other hand, they are inextricably linked to the transport of Jews to the concentration camps in Germany and occupied Poland. It is significant that the first three and the last three letters of the names Austerlitz and Auschwitz are identical. There is a curious mirror-image here: while Austerlitz was saved in 1939, his father, though possibly managing to flee from Paris the following year, did not survive the war. The sentence just quoted is ambiguous in a thematically enriching manner: "white clouds of smoke" (407) do not only rise from the carriage Austerlitz imagines his father is in, they also rose from the chimneys of Auschwitz.

 If Austerlitz's narrative is a gesture of solidarity, an act of homage paid to his father, it is also a sustained reflection on the historical reality of war (and the Holocaust within that war), and on the vulnerability and fragility of European civilization. Through this communicative act in this narrative situation, Austerlitz, and Sebald behind him, enable the frame narrator to "correct for distorted perspective, by adopting something like the standpoint of 'the moral community'" (Griswold, xxii). As the last narrative situation in Paris makes clear, the ending of Austerlitz's story makes a strong impression on the frame narrator, thus transforming his attentive listening as narratee into active retelling of the protagonist's story. This effect, which is possessed of an ethical dimension, is in part comparable to that experienced by the frame narrator in Heart of Darkness. In Kafka's short story aspects of the same effect are perhaps observable in the problematic and curiously unresolved stance of the third-person narrator, who, though he takes care to distance himself from the traveller, becomes a kind of bystander whose ethical position is perhaps also dubious. I write "perhaps" because the narrator's motivation to narrate is less clear in "In der Strafkolonie." What becomes clear, though, is Kafka's concern with the ethical dimension of narrative.

A similarly lasting impression is, I conclude, made on the reader. Although it will vary from reader to reader how and how much he or she will be able, or willing, to make such an invitation correct for his or her distorted perspective, and although Austerlitz's narrative does not necessarily make the authorial audience forgive those who harmed him and killed his parents, it makes us cognizant of the need for forgiveness by including us in a narrative situation and involving us in a process which, albeit slowly and perhaps modestly, improve the chances of, and move in the direction of, an interpersonal moral relation possessed of at least some reciprocity between injured (variously represented by Austerlitz and his parents as different kinds of victims) and injurer (represented by and including facets of the frame narrator, the reader, and Sebald as implied and empirical author).[1]


[1] I would like to thank Professor Wolf Schmid for inviting me to Hamburg and Professor Astrid Erll for her helpful comments on an earlier version of this essay.

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