Kafka’s Mousetrap: The Fable of the Dying Voice


Sometimes fiction acts in a gently prophetic way and by a strange coincidence a writer awakes one morning to find himself taken at his word by reality, the literary dream having become a biographical actuality. This idea is not as strange as it first sounds, especially when one considers how Aristotle distinguishes the historian from the poet in the Poetics: “The difference,” Aristotle writes, “is that one tells of what has happened, the other of the kinds of things that might happen” (2000: 68). Given that the poet speaks of “the kinds of things that might happen,” there is no reason why fiction can’t act predictively. The last story Franz Kafka wrote, “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk,” is a case in point, being poetic in just this sense of the term. It concerns a mouse called Josephine who believes herself to be gifted with the ability to sing and compose songs, but who really just cheeps like the rest of her folk and whose destiny it is to “be forgotten like all her brothers” (1979: 145). Kafka completed the piece in the spring of 1924—just before the terminal phase of his tuberculosis extinguished his voice and forced him to communicate with his friends by writing out short sentences on pieces of paper. The tragic coincidence did not escape Kafka’s attention and the author remarked wryly to his friend Robert Klopstock that fiction seemed to be showing reality the way in this particular instance: “‘I think I undertook my research into animal chirping at the right moment’” (qtd in Blanchot 264).

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