The reds of the brick wall call out to me as I enter the gallery. I want to feel the gritty texture, the red that beckons in my mind both the clay of the earth and of blood. At 33 feet long, its foreboding presence is an affront to the space, cutting through like national borders do through the landscape. The bricks range from deep maroons to warm-tinged tones, many of which are stained with white as if washed with the calcium of bones. A wall is an indifferent object that creates difference around it, impeding movement and obscuring vision. The top of the wall reaches to about my eye level and I can see the word “Imagine” from Dread Scott’s Imagine a World Without America peeking over from the other side.
This wall was erected by Jorge Méndez Blake, a Mexican artist. It is therefore a wall built in the United States by a Mexican and, like a river, it does not follow a straight line—there is a swell disrupting it’s tidy structure. As I move closer, I see below it a copy of Franz Kafka’s first novel Amerika, written but never finished, between 1912 and 1914. In 1913, its first chapter “The Stoker” was released by publisher Kurt Wolff as a forty-eight page booklet. This chapter would be a part of Kafka’s The Sons trilogy along with “Metamorphosis” and “The Judgement.” In 1927 Kafka’s friend and literary executor Max Brod assembled and published the entire novel posthumously as Der Verschollene (The Missing Person). Other translations of the title are The Man Who Disappeared or Lost in America. It tells the story of Karl, a teenaged-boy forced to flee his country. He is greeted by the Statue of Liberty holding a sword rather than a torch. Might over light foreshadows Karl’s navigation of the United States, where he is swept up by the fallacy of the American Dream. As the story progresses, Karl (like the incomplete novel itself) becomes less and less defined, losing his material possessions (including his only photograph of his parents), jobs, and livelihood. At one point, he flees from the police after a false accusation. His every action and desire must be beyond reproach, “for one could not hope for pity here in this country.”1 As Karl reaches the Occidental Hotel in chapter five, he is led to his room by the head cook. On the way, they see a lift boy who is asleep in an elevator. She says to Karl, “A ten to twelve-hour workday is just a little too much for such a boy. But it’s peculiar in America.… Right now, it seems as if he could not possibly endure the work, there's no flesh left on his face, he falls asleep while he's on duty though he is by nature very willing.”2 The exploitation of the most vulnerable leaves the novel, despite its air of hope, in a state of damnation. At the end of the story, in an incomplete chapter, Karl is interrogated for a position that will send him to Oklahoma (misspelled by Kafka as “Oklahama”). The secret of his real name, held back because of his fear of imprisonment, leads Karl to provide “them the nickname from his last few positions: ‘Negro.’”
“‘Negro?’ the manager asked, turning his head and grimacing, as if Karl had attained the height of implausibility.”3 But Karl’s identification of himself as Negro reflects his status as marked and inescapable, tells of a harsher, more inhumane descent to a place where his possible death awaits, the fulfillment of the man who disappeared.
The bend in the wall’s line produced by the book, separates the bricks enough so that it is the one spot I can see light coming through from the other side. Here I experience a break in the materiality where the physical barrier separates and the immaterial (space and light) can be perceived through it. It is the spot that has a graceful curve even if it is difficult to perceive—and it is where the wall seems to be at its weakest, suggesting a rupture in its foundation. It is a conscious gesture by Méndez Blake that beckons me to interrogate the unseen barriers (of ideological nationalism, systemic racism, economic disparity, patriarchy, and xenophobia) in the history spanning Kafka’s and my own. I kneel to inspect the spine of the book from the front. The title is all that can be read: Amerika, with a “k” (the German spelling of America) a slightly unfamiliar sight that makes me emphasize the “ka" at the end and think of ancient Egyptian myth—a person’s spirit, their life force, the indestructible energy that carries on after bodily death. The structure of the wall, the weight of the bricks, presses heavily down, and oppresses the story in its pages. But as the wall attempts to crush the book, it is the book—like the immigrant—that resists and changes the wall.
1. Kafka, Franz. Amerika. Translated by Mark Harman, (New York: Schocken, 2008), p.35.
2. Ibid, 117.
3. Ibid, 278.