One of the most memorable lines in 20th century fiction has been transformed. The unforgettable words: “When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed …” now read in an entirely different context, and language: “Raat bhar uljhay huay khwaboon main mubtila rehnay kay baad Gregor Samsa aik subah bedar hua to us nay dekha keh apnay bistar main woh aik deo-haikal badheyat keeray ki jon dhar chukka tha.”

Kafka would have been surprised at this transformation. A shy and evasive person, he spent his brief lifetime in Prague, publishing little and sharing his writings with only a small group of friends, particularly Max Brod, who supervised the posthumous publications of his fiction, diaries and letters. Kafka’s impact upon world literature can be gauged from the tribute that Gabriel Garcia Marquez paid him, acknowledging the debt he owed the enigmatic writer: “I never slept again with my former serenity,” wrote Marquez in his autobiography when describing his chance encounter with a book his roommate lent him. “It determined a new direction for my life from its first line … When I finished reading The Metamorphosis I felt an irresistible longing to live in that alien paradise. The day found me at the portable typewriter, attempting to write something that would resemble Kafka’s poor bureaucrat changed into an enormous cockroach.”

The kind of experience Marquez underwent is open to writers and readers all over the world through translations of Kafka’s works and it is this possibility that makes books such as Kafka Kahaniyan, translations of Kafka’s short fiction by Muhammad Asim Butt, so promising. Urdu readers are in for a treat as the entire bulk of Kafka’s short fiction has been rendered into Urdu by Butt, a fiction writer of distinction himself and the author of a remarkable novel, Daira. The first edition of the book came out almost a decade ago and the translator has taken this opportunity to revise and tighten up the translations. He has included all the short fiction of the author as well as a dramatic piece. This includes short tales and parables which have a luminosity unlike other writing. Muhammad Asim Butt has also written a biographical essay describing the salient features of Kafka’s life and times.

For many decades Kafka has exerted influence on the Urdu short story. He was openly cited as an inspiration by Ahmed Ali, one of the co-authors of Angarey and a formative modernist writer. It is indeed a pity that Ali’s Urdu books have gone out of print and his remarkable fiction is not available as well as it deserves to be. A realist with a strong flair for naturalism, Ali played with the notions of time and space, absorbing Kafka’s influence and of other modernists. Writers such as Intizar Husain and Khalida Hussain have also been influenced by Kafka.

One who not only absorbed Kafka’s influence in a creative manner but also went on to translate some of his fiction was the highly original fiction writer Naiyer Masood, whose slim volume of translations of Kafka was published several years ago. A well-known stylist, Masood brought a haunting quality to the handful of translations. It is a pity that he did not cover more of Kafka, especially the novels, as good translations of the two novels Kafka completed are not available for Urdu readers. I hope that Butt’s fascination with Kafka will not stop here but extend into his other works, such as his diaries and novels.

Kafka Kahaniyan (The short stories of Franz Kafka) (TRANSLATION) Translated by Muhammad Asim Butt National Book Foundation, Islamabad 390pp.

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