Jay Cantor doesn't flinch at the lash of history. His “Stories for Franz Kafka” dwells on Hitler's and Stalin's Holocausts, both of which cast a shadow over Kafka and his work. The Prague fabulist was a Communist and a Jew, and though tuberculosis took him in 1924 (he was 42), many of those close to him wound up suffering torture and extermination. Cantor sifts the ashes to create these four fictions, to greatest success in the two closing tragedies: The penultimate “Lusk and Marianne” spares no detail of NKVD interrogation or a Gulag compound, and the closer spends most of its time with the doomed women of the Nazi camp at Ravensbruck. In these evocations of slaughter and its damaged survivors, Forgiving the Angel does honor to, as Cantor puts it in his closing “Note,” Kafka's “necessary, seasick experience of writing.” At the same time, Cantor may undo some of the damage that history has done to him.
His 1983 debut, The Death of Che Guevara, set off hosannas. A 600-page audacity, Che both celebrated and deconstructed its title character's dream of revolution, prompting comparison to both Melville and Garcia Marquez, and Cantor won a MacArthur. Each succeeding book, however, was more tepidly received. Krazy Kat, 1988, a mashup of comic strip and yuppie infidelity, never generated the excitement of other experimental novels, such as Steve Erickson's. Fifteen years later, Great Neck could've been Cantor's long-awaited Big Book, putting precocious New York Jews through thorny entanglements with '60s radicalism. But that novel, like his others, is now out of print.
All the work, for better or worse, springs from the same obsession. Even Cantor's essays (1991) and graphic novel (2011) brood over how the twentieth century perverted its noblest aspirations. Marx promised brotherhood, Nietzsche and Freud a greater humanity—so what happened? In this first book of stories the question flares up again, at times impossible to ignore.
The opening story looks at Kafka and his champion Max Brod, assessing their shifting dynamics against a shifting backdrop, from Berlin during Kafka's last days to Tel Aviv during Brod's (he died in 1968). Yet the insights can feel, like some of those in Great Neck, labored. Brod goes on dying a long time, discovering and rediscovering how his old friend has him ensnared like a character in a Kafka story. If only this were a Kafka story! If only it took such imaginative leaps. That's the absence most felt in the Brod piece and its followup, a Chinese box of a fiction, in which a K. scholar happens upon an undiscovered K. story that features Franz K.
When the actual Kafka brings up God and the law, the context may be surreal, but it's life and death. The Samsas' fresh-hatched bug, for instance, must fly or die. Cantor's Brod, on the other hand, invites an interviewer to his comfy apartment, and there he spools out abstractions: “Only a law one wants to fulfill but can't because it conflicts with another law one also wants to fulfill keeps God before our eyes.”
But Cantor's final two pieces plunge into the camps, the twentieth century's most damning evidence of how its promise of a better way turned malevolent. “Lusk and Marianne” explores the ruin of Communism, which takes its worst toll on Ludwig Lask, a true-blue Leninist who married Kafka's last lover, Dora Diamant; Marianne was their child. Diamant poses one of the most confounding riddles of Kafka's life, yet Cantor renders her three-dimensional, both heroic and narcissistic; he's even better with the mulish yet loving Lask. The father survives the Gulag and reunites with his daughter, but their relationship remains tragic. It's one more specter haunting Europe, thanks to the travesty made of Marx's.
The last piece imagines the final torment of Milena Jasenska, the one woman in Kafka's life who—had he not pulled away—could've provided true partnership. Cantor draws on the memoirs of Ransbruck survivors but creates a composite, Eva Muntzberg, whose name suggests both a new woman (Eve) in a new city (Berg) and the Yiddish for monster (Momzer). Eva, though as brutally handled as Lask, experiences the miracle of love. Milena's touch has an ameliorative effect that outlasts the Reich's ethnic cleansing, even as the killing inspires Cantor's most powerful passages:
...by the winter of 1942 they'd come for the gypsies and the Jews, a few of who she'd heard try to deceive themselves about men's teeth, saying they might not be killed immediately, as they, unlike the cripples, were still capable of work. A day after each transport, the dead's crutches, socks, underwear and Bibles had come back in the same trucks, present still, and painful to the eye.
The amalgam of childlike metaphor and grim specifics owes a debt to Cynthia Ozick's The Shawl (1989), but the Milena and Marianne stories nonetheless introduce a new strain to Holocaust fiction, encompassing Lubyanka as well as Auschwitz and going on to implicate therapy too. Postwar psychology fails both daughter and lover. The idea's fascinating, its depiction chilling—and one hopes it will win fresh esteem for an author lately lost to neglect.
John Domini's latest novel is A Tomb on the Periphery; he has a selection of criticism, The Sea-God's Herb, due in May, and his story sequence MOVIEOLA! will appear in 2015.