Michael Hofmann’s supple translation of Franz Kafka’s ‘A Country Doctor’, and his subtle and penetrating analysis of Kafka’s German prose in his introduction to Metamorphosis and Other Stories, were the initial inspiration- together with a reading of Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory – for Will Self’s essay. The entire text of Hofmann’s translation is reproduced here.
I was in a quandary: my presence was urgently required; a gravely ill man was waiting for me in a village ten miles distant; a blizzard filled the space between me and my goal; I had a carriage, light, high-wheeled, eminently suited to our country roads; wrapped in my fur, with my Gladstone bag in my hand, I stood in the courtyard all ready to go; but the horse was missing, there was no horse. My own horse had died the previous night, on account of its over-exertions in the current icy winter; now my maid was running from pillar to post to look for a replacement; but it was hopeless, I knew it, and, with the snow falling on me, I stood there increasingly rooted to the spot, and more and more aware of the pointlessness of it. The girl appeared in the gateway, alone, waving a lantern; of course, who would lend out his horse for such a ride? I strode across the yard once more; I could see no possibility; distracted, tormented, I kicked at the rickety door of a pig-sty unused for many years. The lock gave, and the door swung back and forth on its hinges. Warm air and a horsey smell greeted me. A dim stable lantern dangled on a rope. A man, hunkered down in the low-ceilinged sty, showed his open-featured, blue-eyed face. ‘Would you like me to put them to?’ he asked, crawling out on his hands and knees. I didn’t know what to say, and bent down to get a sight of whatever else there might be in the sty. Beside me stood the maid. ‘You never know what you have in your own house,’ she said, whereupon we both laughed. ‘Ho, brother, ho, sister!’ called the stable lad, and two horses, mighty, powerful-flanked creatures crept out one after another, legs tucked in close to their bodies, bending their shapely heads in the manner of camels, only barely managing to twist their way through the doorway which their rumps completely filled. But then, once outside, they immediately drew themselves up to their full height, with long legs and solid steaming bodies. ‘Help him,’ I said, and right away the willing girl ran up to hand the harness to the groom. But no sooner has she reached him than the groom throws his arms around her, and thrusts his face against hers. She screams and runs to me; there are the red marks of two rows of teeth on the girl’s cheek. ‘You animal!’ I scream in my rage, ‘do you want a taste of my whip?’ but I straightaway calm down, reminding myself I’m talking to a stranger, that I don’t know where he comes from and that he has agreed to help me when everyone else has let me down. As if he could read my mind, he is not offended by my outburst, but, still busy with the horses, turns only once in my direction. ‘Get in,’ he says finally, and indeed, everything is ready. I can see I have never had such a good team of horses before, and I climb happily aboard. ‘I’ll take the reins, though, you don’t know the way,’ I say. ‘Of course,’ he says, ‘I’m not even going with you, I’m staying with Rosa.’ ‘No,’ screams Rosa, and runs into the house with a presentiment of her inevitable fate; I hear the rattle of the chain on the door, as she pulls it across; I hear the click of the lock; I see her turning out the lights in the hall, and then running on through the house, to make it impossible for him to find her. ‘You’re coming with me,’ I say to the groom, ‘or I’m not going, however urgent my mission is. It wouldn’t occur to me to pay with the girl for my ride.’ ‘Ho!’ he calls; claps his hands; the carriage is swept away, like a treetrunk in a flood; I can still hear my front door cracking and splintering under the assault of the groom, and then my eyes and ears are filled with a penetrating hissing that seems to fill all my senses. But all is only for an instant, then, as if the yard of the patient were just the other side of my front gate, I am there already; the horses are standing quietly; the snow has stopped; moonlight on all sides; the patient’s parents come running out of the house, his sister behind them; I am lifted almost bodily out of the carriage; I can make no sense of their confused reports; the air in the sick man’s room is barely breathable; the neglected stove is smoking; I want to throw open the window; but first of all I want to see my patient. Lean, neither feverish nor cold nor warm, with vacant eyes and no shirt, the lad pulls himself up in his bed, drapes his arms round my neck and whispers into my ear: ‘Doctor, let me die.’ I turn round; no one else heard him; his parents are standing there hunched forward, silently awaiting my verdict; his sister has brought in a chair for me on which to set down my bag. I open it, and survey my instruments; the lad is still gesturing in my direction from his bed, to remind me of his plea; I pick up a pair of pincers, check them in the candlelight, and set them down again. ‘Yes,’ I think blasphemously, ‘it’s in these sorts of cases that the gods send their help, they supply a horse, throw in another because time is short, even contribute a groom – ’ and now I remember Rosa; what shall I do, how can I rescue her, how can I pull her out from under that groom, ten miles away, and with ungovernable horses pulling my carriage? Those horses, apropos, that seem now to have loosened their traces; are nudging open the window from outside, don’t ask me how; pushing their heads through the opening, and, unimpressed by the screams of the family, are contemplating the patient. ‘I’ll go back right away,’ I think, as if the horses were summoning me to return, but I allow the sister, who must think I’ve got heatstroke, to help me off with my fur coat. A glass of rum is poured for me, the old man pats me on the back, the offering of his treasure entitling him to such a familiarity. I shake my head; I feel sick in the narrow confines of the old man’s thoughts; that is the only reason I turn down the drink. The mother stands by the bed waving me to her; I follow, and while one of the horses is whinnying loudly somewhere under the ceiling, I lay my head against the chest of the boy, who shivers from the touch of my wet beard. I am confirmed in what I thought already: the boy is perfectly healthy, his circulation a little sluggish, plied with coffee by his anxious mother, but basically healthy and needing nothing more than a good kick to get him out of bed. I am employed by the parish, and do my duty to the point where it is almost too much for one man. Though badly paid, I am generous and helpful to the poor. I should like to see Rosa provided for, and then the boy may have his way as far as I’m concerned, and I shall be ready to die as well. What am I doing in this endless winter! My horse has died, and there is no one in the village prepared to lend me his. I have to extricate my new team from a pig-sty; if there hadn’t happened to be horses in it, I should have had to make do with pigs, I suppose. That’s the way of it. And I nod to the family. They don’t know anything about it, and, if they did, they wouldn’t believe it. Filling prescriptions is easy, but getting on with people is much harder. Well, my visit here is about over, once again I’ve been called out for nothing, I’m used to that, the whole parish uses my night bell to torture me with, but the fact that this time I had to sacrifice Rosa as well, that lovely girl who has been living for years in my own house, most of the time stupidly overlooked by me – that loss is simply too great, and I must work hard to shrink it in my own head so as not to take it out on this family here, which with the best will in the world is not going to be able to restore Rosa to me. But when I close my bag and wave for my fur coat, the family is assembled, the father sniffing at the rum glass in his hand, the mother, presumably disappointed in me – but what do these people expect? – biting her lips and sobbing, and the sister waving around a blood-soaked handkerchief, I am somehow ready to admit under the circumstances that the boy may after all be ill. I go over to him, he smiles at me, as though I were bringing him some beef-tea – oh dear, and then both the horses start whinnying; I suppose the noise has been called for from above somewhere, to make the inspection of the patient easier – and now I find: the boy is sick. In his right flank, at around hip-height, he has a fresh wound as big as my hand. Pink, in many shades, a deep carmine at the centre, lightening towards the periphery, with a soft granular texture, the bleeding at irregular points, and the whole thing as gapingly obvious as a mine-shaft. From a distance, at any rate. Closer to, there’s a further complication. Who could take in such a thing without whistling softly? Worms, the length and thickness of my little finger, roseate and also coated with blood, are writhing against the inside of the wound, with little white heads, and many many little legs. Poor boy, it’s not going to be possible to help you. I have found your great wound; that flower in your side is going to finish you. The family are happy, they watch me going about my job; the sister tells the mother, the mother tells the father, the father tells some of the visitors who are tiptoeing in through the door in the bright moonlight, arms extended for balance. ‘Will you save me?’ the boy whimpers, dazzled by the life in his wound. That’s the way people are in this parish. Always demanding the impossible from their doctor. They have lost their old faith; the priest sits around at home, ripping up his altar garments one after another; but the doctor is expected to perform miracles with his delicate surgeon’s fingers. Well, whatever: I never put myself forward; if you use me for your sacred purposes, I’ll see what I can do; what better thing is there for me, old country doctor that I am, robbed of my maid! And here they come, the family and the village elders, and they start to undress me; a school choir with the teacher at the front stands outside the house and sings to an extremely plain melody the words:
Undress him, and he will heal you,
If he doesn’ t heal you, kill him!
He’ s just a doctor, a doctor!
Then I am undressed, and, with head bent and fingers twining in my beard, I look calmly at all those present. I am perfectly braced and a match for them all and will remain so, even though it won’t help me, because now they take me by the head and the feet and carry me to the bed. Then everyone leaves the room; the door is closed; the singing dies down; clouds cover the face of the moon; I am lying in the warm bedclothes; the horses’ heads sway shadowily in the open windows. ‘You know,’ I hear a voice in my ear, ‘I have very little faith in you. You’ve just snowed in from somewhere yourself, it’s not as though you got here under your own steam. Instead of helping, you make free with my deathbed. I’d like to scratch your eyes out.’ ‘You’re right,’ I say, ‘it is a disgrace. But I happen to be the doctor. What am I supposed to do? Believe me, it’s not easy for me either.’ ‘Am I supposed to be happy with that as an apology? I suppose it’s all I’m going to get. I always have to take what I’m given. I came into the world with a lovely wound; that was my entire outfitting.’ ‘My young friend,’ I say, ‘your mistake is this: you lack perspective. I, who have been in sickrooms far and wide, tell you: your wound isn’t so bad as all that. A couple of glancing blows with an axe. There are many who offer their flanks, and barely hear the axe in the forest, never mind it deigning to come any nearer to them.’ ‘Is that really true, or are you taking advantage of my fever to deceive me?’ ‘It really is true, accept the word of honour of an official doctor.’ And he accepted it, and was quiet. But now it was time to think about my own salvation. The horses were still standing faithfully in their places. I quickly managed to grab my clothes, fur coat and bag; I didn’t want to waste time dressing; if the horses made as much haste as on the way here, then I would be jumping from that bed straight into my own. One horse obediently drew back from the window; I tossed the bundle of my things into the carriage; the fur coat flew too far, but luckily one of its sleeves caught on a hook. Just as well. I jumped on to the horse. The bridle trailing loosely, the horses barely made fast one to another, the carriage careering around behind, and the fur dragging across the snow at the end. ‘Now go like blazes!’ I said, but it was anything but; slowly as old men we trailed through the snowy waste; for a long time we heard the new, but mistaken song of the children’s choir:
Rejoice, you patients,
The doctor has lain down with you in your bed!
I’m never going to make it home at this rate; my flourishing practice is lost; my successor will rob me, but it won’t help him much, he’ll never be able to supplant me; the nasty groom is rampaging through my house; Rosa is his victim; I don’t want to contemplate it. Naked, exposed to the frost of this most miserable epoch, with an earthly carriage and unearthly horses, what am I but an old man adrift. My fur coat is hanging off the back of my carriage, but I am unable to reach it, and not one of my fleet-footed scoundrels of patients will lift a finger to help. I’ve been swindled! Swindled! Once follow the misleading ring of the night bell – and it will never be made good.