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Kofko In My Hand
 

by Elisha Porat
translated from Hebrew by Alan Sacks

This morning, much to my surprise, I felt  some of my strength of old return. The slight blurring of my vision, the  side effect of a disorienting dizziness, eased as my medication relaxed its  grip on me. Reinvigorated, I approached the bookcase, pulled out some of the  tightly packed volumes and blew the dust from them. At last, exhausted, I  held Kafka in my hands. Though it had been quite some time since I had  turned to his works, he had often come to mind these past weeks. Now he was  in my hands again, a small, hard-bound edition, with the Hebrew letters set  in the old-fashioned type of Yeshuron Keshet and printed by Belet Gavshushi.

Just a few days earlier, I heard the famous Czech poet,the one who would visit Israel one day, pronounce Kafka's name. Kafko, he said, and then  again, Kafko. Suddenly, this alien pronunciation seemed to me just right,  seven times better and a thousand times more faithful. It was, indeed, a  significant change. I close my eyes and echo his voice for myself. Kafko or  Kafka, Kafka versus Kafko.When the Czech poet intoned the name in his  Slavic accented language, it sounded like Yosefko. Really, Yosefko, Yosko,  Yoshko,Yoskof.

The name was terribly familiar to me, something I had  known years ago, as though it had been printed on the kibbutz work roster of  giant Bristol pages that could not be folded, pages so heavy they pulled out  the tiny tacks holding them to the perforated wooden board. Yosek. K. Yoshko  K. How easy it was to pronounce the name. I already liked Kofko, the new  editions should print it Kafkoh and no other way. That is, the final vowel  had to be embedded in the last consonant, but it was important that the  suffix appear Hebrew and not western Slavic. Kahfkoh, which you could read  as Kafkah or hear as Kafko, however the spirit moved you. A crackling good  name that worked either way, two names suddenly merging, until I make a  mistake and say, Yosef Kafka, thinking of his protagonist by that strange name instead of little Franz, which has simply escaped my memory.

There I stand at my bookcase, which exudes the aroma of damp wood. Kafko  in my hand, I compose in my mind a letter to father. No version of this letter will ever be published. Kofko's writing, bewildering topic-switching  prose, sets my teeth on edge. It sometimes resembles the fitful flight of  some insect cautiously weaving 70 circles around an open flower. A lyrical  turn occasionally flashes past in fear of an impending withdrawal. This is  indeed timid writing, the sort that fears the direct approach. Here and  there, a quick, direct sentence plucks up its courage and escapes. I fully  expect that in the wake of this breach (on a small scale, of course, for he  knows nothing of all-out attacks on his pages), occupation divisions will  tramp forward to exploit the breakthrough, clean out the remaining outposts  and establish a bridgehead.

But no. That is not for him. He instantly  retreats to the safe shelter of the previous sentence. From there, he may  sally forth in secret and once more try to reach his goal. His prose is  self-defeating. Sentences imprison themselves within
a multitude of bonds  and bounds. It comes close to what they taught me in the army years and  years ago. One foot on the ground and one in the air. While the pinning  force seizes the commanding high ground, the assault unit scouts the
enemy  to surprise him in his trenches. Perhaps even this definition is not truly accurate. But what has accuracy to do with literature? One step forward and two steps back, that is how he fashions his advance. I pace before the book shelves, Kofko's book in my hand now open to the eye. We are writing the  letter to father. Sentences race ahead, terrified, stooped, seeking shelter. With inexplicable courage, bold passages suddenly surge forth and whole  columns are swept
forward. The whole manuscript advances, an essay of black  letters striking violently across the front until my heart skips a beat with  some strange fear of sinking into a black morass. But I have nothing to  fear. The first step forward has
already been made. Now everything has come  to a halt, pausing, scanning the terrain. It is as though Kafko himself has  leapt from the page, taking the lie of the land and telling himself, whoa, too fast; the assault columns must be
stopped. He is already planning his  next move, a double step back. Once again, I am thrown far from the open  heart of the wound.

Good, after the advances, we seat ourselves, the two  of us, before father. There is a certain obscurity here, but I am in no rush  to clear it up. Whose father is it before whom we sit? Little, scared  Franzy, who slips the letter into the
post box and takes to his heels - is  it his father? Or does each of us face his own father, handing him the  letter in person? I remembered his stern face when I finished my
days of  punishment and was allowed back into the house. I was very sorry when he passed on and mourned him for a long time. I wondered how Kofko, writing his letter, would conduct himself, whether he would need to read an original,
heartfelt eulogy while his father's coffin was lowered into the grave.

Prague, the city masked in Kofko's stories, was not destroyed in the  great war. The house stands where it has always stood. The river flows past. The old bridges still It all suddenly becomes clear. His mysteries are  solved. Young,
energetic Kafka, destined to grow as old as Methusaleh, was  in the habit of plunging into the chilly waters of the river. According to  his friends, who remembered what they
saw there, he swam the river in swift  strokes. In the evening, returning refreshed and bursting with vitality, he  would mobilize his paper heroes for the astounding strategy he had devised.  One step forward and two steps back.

Can the lead sentence deny all the  sentences to follow? How is it possible that a single clause can open or bar  seven gates? Where can he hide, the trembling boy seeking refuge from his father's wrath? I am reminded of a boy, a childhood friend, who once  accidentally broke the key to his parents' apartment. That was in the new  neighborhood. The chain fell to the floor while the broken key remained stuck in the hole. Sweating from head to toe in fright, he tried to draw
the  broken part from the door. When he finally succeeded, his whole body was  shaking. He laid the broken key at the base of the door, as though it had fallen of itself and
shattered on the floor. Even the crack he had tried to  patch with spit could not be seen. He crawled into the garden on the slope  of the lawn and crouched in the dark of the bushes until his parents  returned from work. Only in the black of
night did he dare to come out and  present himself as someone who had traveled a great distance. In his  absence, the mangled corpse of the key had been found on the porch. The air  was thick with suspicion.

Of course, I am no seer when I dip into my  memories. There is no limit to fear of a father's wrath. Even on a little  kibbutz, a boy dreads the rage of an angry father returning home after a  long day of work. He kicks the broken key and
upbraids his wife who, as we  recall from Kofko, is the beloved mother. "Ptui, ptui, ptui," he spits out.  "Why, tell me why he has abused your precious `jewelry' again. Would it help  to throw him out of the house for a few days? Maybe this time he'll learn how to behave?" In my bed at the hospital, I drafted countless letters to father. What attracted me was the detached, remote nature of it, the  opportunity
to hide behind the other side of the composition, quite unlike  the stories and poems I have written over the years. It is the yearnings  laid bare and base desires that make a name for a piece. One can feel pain,  even regret. In every important
stage of my life, at every juncture, I have  found myself facing him, composing my thoughts for him on a sheet of paper. On the one hand, I am glad he did not go through the
terrible wars, worried  sick for the safety of his children. On the other, I regret that he did not  read my works or see his children grow up. I remember his final illness and  my last visit to the hospital. It all comes back to me unexpectedly, the acrid odors, the hushed fears and panic-stricken voices.

"Give me  another 10 years," I begged. "At least let me live as long as he did." I  bargained passionately with the giver of life and death. I was not ashamed to mix in some tears. Of course, I am no seer when I dip into my memories.  There is no limit to fear of a father's wrath. Even on a little kibbutz, a  boy dreads the rage of an angry father returning home after a long day of  work. He kicks the broken key and upbraids his wife who, as we recall from...

Who, Kofko? In his own demented way, he would throw a wild party one  evening to free the household of a tyrannical father's yoke. It may be that  as he steps forward, he breaks out in a drunken monologue of which the  principal subject is the purpose of going forth in liberty. But little Franz  instantly comes to and loses his nerve. With two steps back, he flings  himself, wracked with longing, on the memory of the dearly departed, on the  happy days of his childhood with his father and the simple, quiet pleasure  of their home warm against the cold and rainof a European winter.

In  the end, in that twisted way of his, he would spit, "ptui, ptui, ptui," berating  his mother and sister so these slow-witted women, these stupid loved ones,  would grasp at last just who it was they were bound to serve from then to  the end of their days.

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