In Honour of Musa Khankhel

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As with all his writing, Kafka’s masterful story Ein Brudermord (A Fratricidecan be read on many levels.  Most immediately it is about the inexplicable murder of Wese by Schmar, with the neighbour Pallas a passive observer to the scene; Wese’s wife arrives too late, only to discover her husband is already dead. Yet on a deeper level the story reads as an allegory for the death of reason as progress, the bludgeoning of Enlightenment philosophy at the end of a knife: “An und für sich sehr vernünftig, daß Wese weitergeht, aber er geht ins Messer des Schmar.”  In and of itself it is very rational for Wese to go forward, but he goes into the blade of Schmar. The philosophical cadences here are unmistakeable: “an und für sich” is the language of Kant, and even the name of the protagonist – Wese – evokes the German word “Wesen,” or “essence” in the German philosophical tradition (Schmar, meanwhile, suggests Schmarre; a slash). Schmar’s irrational opposition to Wese, his old “friend,” his brother in humanity, is as complete as it is impatient: even after Schmar has already stabbed Wese, he turns to his body and asks: “Why aren’t you just a balloon full of blood, so that I might sit on you and make you disappear altogether? … What silent question do you mean to pose?”

Writing against the backdrop of World War I, Kafka did not need to be reminded of the manifestations of his allegory, of the hope of progress and civilization’s rational advance terminated by brutal, unmediated violence. My friend Imtiaz Ali, a courageous journalist from Pakistan who has himself been threatened by the Taliban, wrote yesterday with the sad news that his colleague Musa Khankhel, 28, was murdered after a brief abduction by militants.  “It is all the more painful,” reflected Ali, because Musa Khan was working in a critically important part of Pakistan, where the Pakistani government had just signed a peace deal with militants in the hope of bringing peace to a turbulent and violent region.  But this was Khan, says Ali: a “peace activist,” a muckraker who “broke many stories,” and “a fearless man.”  

Responding to Imtiaz, our mutual friend Felix Maradiaga from Nicaragua wrote to share his sympathy, and to reflect on Nicaraguan parallels. “I would love to say that that is no longer the case in Nicaragua,” wrote Maradiaga: but the reality is otherwise. In 2004 the journalist Carlos Guadamuz was gunned down outside the studios of TV station Canal 23 de Noticias de Nicaragua (CDNN). The gunman, who shot him several times, was arrested and identified as William Hurtado, who was a policeman during the 1979-1990 government of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) and a well know activist of the Sandinista Party.  And Maradiaga recalled the memory of Maria Jose Bravo, a journalist from La Prensa daily who was a close friend of his. At the age of 26, as she covered clashes in 2004 between various political parties outside a vote-tallying centre, Bravo was fatally shot in the chest.  

There are of course stories of murdered journalists throughout the world, like Anna Politkovskaya, who offered courageous opinions for the independent biweekly Novaya Gazeta in Russia until she “was gunned down in the lift of her apartment building on Lesnaya Street in Moscow on 7 October 2006, Putin’s birthday.”

What can one say after a journalist is murdered in the exercise of their craft – how to make sense of it? Yet this is the power of Kafka’s story: it does not attempt so much to explain violence from the standpoint of reason, but rather to consider reason from the contemptuous standpoint of violence.  In so doing, there can only be an uncomfortable juxtaposition of actors without any obvious reconciliation. It is precisely because journalists like Musa Khankel, Carlos Guadamuz, Maria Jose Bravo, and Anna Politkovskaya acted rationally, and hopefully, that they were killed by violent forces. And they had neighbours, too, like Pallas in Kafka’s story, who stood by in anticipation of their killing, unable or unwilling to help them. And they had family members and friends, like Wese’s wife, who could only arrive on the scene too late.

Yet as always in Kafka, there is also the smallest hint of hope, of an unexpected inversion, a glimpse of light or transcendence from the shadows. Just as Schmar finds to his frustration that he still fears Wese’s “silent question” after he has killed him,  so the spirits of murdered journalists always exceed the grasp of their killers.

4 thoughts on “In Honour of Musa Khankhel

  1. That’s a really interesting article, a very thought-provoking way of telling the story of Khankel, of which I had not heard before.

    I tried getting into Kafka and just couldn’t enjoy it, certainly didn’t see any thing as interesting as what you do. Any advice on Kafka for people who don’t like Kafka?

  2. David: even if you don’t like Kafka, it’s possible to enjoy Kafka-inspired fiction, getting that Kafka effect at second-hand, as it were. I recommend Philip Roth’s The Breast (turning Kafka into a Rothian sex comedy) and an interesting book by Carter Scholz and Jonathem Lethem: Kafka Americana.

  3. David,

    Thanks for your kind remarks. I have been thinking about what thoughts I could offer, if any, that might lead you to enjoy reading Kafka, even though I am far from a Kafka expert.

    Here is one: I find it interesting to read Kafka as a historical critique as well as an expression of what Germanistik/Geistesgeschichte (German studies/intellectual history) scholars call ‘antizipierendes BewuBstsein,’ or anticipatory consciousness: his presaging of forms of bureaucratization, spiritual distortion and alienation in twentieth century institutions and life. In other words, Kafka can be read as a kind of prophet whose literature enters into a powerful dialogue with, and sheds new light on, past and future events and institutions. Thomas Mann is also sometimes read in this way.

    The idea of anticipatory consciousness of course is only one of many, many interpretive and aesthetic considerations in Kafka and other writers. It just happens to be one that interests me, so I give inordinate weight to it.

  4. Jeet- thanks for the tip. I recently picked up Portnoy’s Complaint, so if I like that I’ll probably follow up your suggestion. I’m in mind of that scene in The Producer’s where they’re looking for a sure-fire flop to make as a play, going through hundreds of manuscripts, and Zero Mostel reads one: “Gregor Samsa awoke one morning to find he had been ttransformed into a giant cock-a-roach.”
    Then throws it away, “Too good!”
    I really wanted to like Kafka, but I read Metamorphosis and a few other shorts and just found them too boring. But thanks for the advice fellows. And if you think of any of his stories that night be a little better entry-level Kafka, let me know. John- I’ll try and keep your thoughts in mind if I look at some more short stories. I also have Mann’s Faust on my shelf to read; I’d associated him with Hesse (who I really like) but never knew he was Kafka-connected.
    In any case, it was a really interesting posting- thanks!

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