In a ‘Kafkaesque’ reality

Moving their joysticks around, they could interact with their surroundings — peering under the bed, opening drawers and rifling through letters followed until they found the key to exit.
In a ‘Kafkaesque’ reality

CHENNAI: What if you woke up one day, having been turned into a monstrous vermin?

In a darkroom on the first floor of Goethe-Institut last week, the realms of escape rooms, virtual reality and classic literature converged to reawaken this absurd situation first conceived by German writer Franz Kafka. The fantastical elements of Die Verwandlung (The Metamorphosis) came to life as visitors drew the headsets over their faces, immersing themselves in the VRWandlung Experience.

Franz Kafka is regarded as one of the more complex figures in literary history, and his works have been extensively studied under an umbrella of disciplines, including English, History, Philosophy and Psychology. This June marked the centenary of Kafka’s passing, and his 140th birthday would have coincided with the first week of July. To commemorate his life, Goethe-Institut rolled out a series of themed events in a week dedicated wholly to the writer.

Kafka in VR

The VR graphics were developed by a team of 30 led by Mika Johnson over six months, after which it was used in an international travelling exhibition. The multisensory simulation recreated the bedroom belonging to the protagonist of The Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa, in incredible detail. Right from the snow outside the window and the portrait over his writing desk to the photographs stashed away in the cupboard drawers, the VR environment mapped out descriptions from the novella with utmost care. When users looked around the room and gazed in the mirror, they would find the reflection of an insect staring back, moving its limbs as they did.

To supplement the visuals designed by Czech animators, dialogues sounded through the speaker system in a replication of the first scene in the book. While Gregor’s family urged him to open the door in the background, players were tasked with the objective of finding a key hidden in the room to do so. Moving their joysticks around, they could interact with their surroundings — peering under the bed, opening drawers and rifling through letters followed until they found the key to exit. “This was the first exposure to Kafka for many students who tried out the VR experience. It motivated them to read the book by themselves to find out what happens after the door is unlocked,” says student-volunteer Sudharshan.

The entire week was a heartfelt dedication to Kafka and his indelible mark on the world. “It is an unusual concept, so people found it intriguing. We wanted to let them know that Kafka’s writing is not as complex as it seems,” says Subhasri Vijaykumar, head of Information & Library, Goethe-Institut. “We wanted to let people know that Kafka’s writing is not complex. We took inspiration from his popular works like The Metamorphosis and his letters and tied them with something mundane like cooking or something they were able to connect to, like Kollywood,” she adds. It was a simple melding of cultures.

A week-long celebration

Goethe-Institut did not stop there. The week also featured a poster exhibition by Austrian cartoonist Nicolas Mahler, entitled ‘Komplett Kafka’ (Completely Kafka).These illustrations, organised by Literaturhaus Stuttgart were a biographical depiction of Kafka’s letters written to different people over the years. Kafka’s Letters to His Father also inspired V Geetha, editorial director of Tara Books, to facilitate a writing workshop where participants wrote personal letters to their fathers by the end. Additionally, the institute got younger children involved in a scavenger hunt, urging them to find words dispersed around the building and rearrange them into one of Kafka’s quotes: “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.”

Show anchor and executive producer Navaneeth, from the city-based performing theatre company Mirrorz also headed an interactive storytelling session with Goethe-Institut, exploring what the term ‘kafkaesque’ meant, drawing comparisons to well-loved Tamil movies like 3. Political cartoonist, writer and graphic designer Satwik Gade brought Kafka to Chennai’s shores by fashioning a comic illustration workshop for younger students as well.

The theme of connecting with Kafka also underlied the lecture given by writer S Ramakrishnan, who had studied Kafka’s writing in depth. In the Tamil panel discussion that followed, with Ramya Ramaswamy and P Seralathan, the similarities and differences between Kafka’s works and Tamil literature were analysed. Another panel discussion was held in English, where translator and teacher-trainer in Goethe-Institut, Seralathan discussed Kafka’s relevance in the 21st century with Milind Brahme, associate professor at IIT Madras.

The events drew to a close with a demonstrative cooking session led by Piyus Arya, founder of Firangipani Culinary Expressions. This creative class saw the preparation of a salad and a dessert item inspired by a humorous mention in Kafka’s postcard to his fiancee, Felice Bauer. In the card, he listed the food items that he had eaten the day before, starting this way: “Despite insomnia and headaches I’m getting fat, not as fat as my director, but in suitably subordinate terms.” Kafka certainly remains relatable to this day, and this relatability is what makes his work timeless.

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