Short story: “A Report to an Academy”

by look i have opinions

“A Report to an Academy” (“Ein Bericht für eine Akademie”), by Franz Kafka

First written and published in Der Jude in 1917; translated by Willa and Edwin Muir; also by Ian Johnston

3850-3900 words in English

This story has stayed with me for years. Rereading something I wrote recently, I noticed I had actually borrowed the form, most of the plot, and the narrator’s tone without realizing it. Rotpeter maintains his aplomb throughout the long speech as he explains in great detail how he gave up freedom in favor of “a way out.” He speaks kindly of the men who captured him; he blusters furiously (humanly) about the “windbags” who gossip about him in the papers. He drops in a few notes of irony, as when describing the cruel narrowness of his first cage (I’m using the Muirs’ translation): “Such a method of confining wild beasts is supposed to have its advantages during the first days of captivity, and out of my own experiences I cannot deny that from the human point of view this is really the case.” From the human point of view—that is, if you intend to keep and tame the beast.

Just before the end, his manner becoming slightly agitated, he adds this astonishing remark:

When I come home late at night from banquets, from scientific receptions, from social gatherings, there sits waiting for me a half-trained little chimpanzee and I take comfort from her as apes do.  By day I cannot bear to see her; for she has the insane look of the bewildered half-broken animal in her eye; no one else sees it, but I do, and I cannot bear it.

(It reminds me of Nabokov’s claim that “the initial shiver of inspiration” for Lolita was an article about an ape “who, after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: this sketch showed the bars of the poor creature’s cage.” He was lying, I think, but that’s another story.)

I’ve always taken “Report” more or less at face value, as a fable about cruelty, Stockholm syndrome, and self-betrayal; apparently it’s also read as a satire on Jewish assimilation. Kafka’s stories seem to support both allegorical readings and naive or universal readings pretty well, I’ve noticed, insofar as they support interpretation at all.

I like to read the single “report” by itself. The associated fragments are fascinating, but they don’t have the same coherence and force. The last line has great power for me, even as I’m not completely sure what it means. It’s certainly an assertion of neutrality, as though Rotpeter can be neutral about his losses. It seems also an assertion of dignity.

In any case, I am not appealing for any man’s verdict, I am only imparting knowledge, I am only making a report.  To you also, honored Members of the Academy, I have only made a report.