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the giant mole

Those, and I am one of them, who find even a little ordinary-sized mole disgusting, would probably have died of disgust if they had seen the giant mole that was observed a few years ago, not far from a small village which gained a certain passing notoriety on that account.

Thus begins 'The Village Schoolmaster', an unfinished story by Franz Kafka, from the collection 'The Great Wall of China'. It stands out as one of Kafka's funniest stories, an hilarious exercise in futility which characteristically ends in dismal failure for all involved.

The story doesn't concern the giant mole itself - which is said to be "a couple of yards" long, but whose existence has never been confirmed. Instead, it focuses on an academic quarrel which arises over the quality of reporting on the alleged mole. The narrator, however, has never seen the mole. He merely heard about the "little treatise" that the village schoolmaster wrote about the sighting. (In fact, it is not even clear whether the schoolmaster personally saw the mole, or only documented accounts of it from the villagers. In surprisingly postmodern fashion, there is no objective basis whatsoever to the story: the whole thing seems to be based on hearsay.)

Due to "an incomprehensible apathy in those very circles which should have concerned themselves with it," the report has never been recognized by the appropriate authorities. With a smug nobility, the narrator then takes it upon himself to defend the schoolmaster, who "was wise enough to realize that these fragmentary efforts of his, in which no one supported him, were basically worthless." Note how the narrator seems to have definite ideas on how to write proper reports on giant moles. However, in one of those typical twists of logic, Kafka's narrator manages to antagonize the schoolmaster as soon as he gets involved in the matter.

A knowledge of his treatise would only have confused me, and I therefore refrained from reading it before my own work was completed. In fact, I did not even make contact with the teacher. It is true that he learned indirectly of my inquiries, but he did not know whether I was working for him or against him. Indeed he probably suspected the latter, although he later denied it, for I have evidence to show that he placed a number of obstacles in my path.

Amid rising distrust and enmity, but still thinking he is helping, the narrator repeats the investigation of the schoolmaster, and writes his own treatise on the mole. To make matters worse, this second treatise is met with ridicule too.

Those who gave any thought at all to my treatise told themselves, with the hopeless gloom that had characterized the debate from the outset, that no doubt the futile exertions in support of this dreary matter were about to begin again, and some of them even confused my treatise with that of the teacher.

The misunderstanding between the narrator and the schoolmaster is never resolved, even when they finally meet in person. But his meeting with the much older schoolmaster causes the narrator to draw some sarcastic conclusions about "old people", in one of those long ranting sentences:

Most old people have something deceptive, something mendacious about them in their dealings with those younger than themselves; one lives beside them peacefully, imagines the relationship to be secure, knows their prevailing opinions, receives unremitting confirmations of harmony, regards everything as a matter of course, and then suddenly, when something decisive does happen and the time comes for the long-cultivated state of calm to prove effective, these old people rise up like strangers, they possess deeper and stronger convictions, they positively unfurl their banner for the first time and with terror one reads upon it the new device. The reason for this terror lies chiefly in the fact that what the old say now is really far more just, more sensible, and - as if there were degrees of self-evidence - even more self-evident than before. But the surpremely deceitful thing about it is that they have basically always been saying what they now come out with, and that even so it is generally quite impossible to see it coming.

Quotes are from the translation by Malcolm Pasley. The full text (in a different translation) is available online.


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