[Understatement Under the Surface of the Water / Joey Tufano]

“Poseidon” by Franz Kafka is a snapshot of the discontent Poseidon feels toward his duties to the waters. He doesn’t enjoy going over the accounts assigned to him, but feels obligated to do them since it’s his job. His important position as the God of the Seas warrants only superior tasks in his eyes, so when he is offered something petty or unrelated to water, he feels ill. He can never be relieved of his occupation and understands that he was destined to always remain in his post. He feels annoyed by the false rumors circulating about him cruising through the seas with his trident, when in truth he is stuck going over the accounts, occasionally making trips to Jupiter. He dreams of seeing oceans he’s never been to, and reassures himself that there will be a moment to visit them at the end of the world, when he finishes the last account and has the time to take a quick tour.

The most fascinating element to this story is Kafka’s patented understatement. I’m not sure if I can adequately describe what this actually is, except to say that Kafka’s works always say the most important things, the most crucial things to the story, by not saying them at all. His sentences display a sort of logic and rationale even though the subject matter and setting feels like a part of a dreamscape. They aren’t self-referential and they don’t explain themselves: they put an idea forward that is meant to make the reader ask questions. His characters will deduce certain interpretations of reality in logically-sound ways, even though the beginning premise will be completely questionable and absurd, as seen in this quote:

Needless to say, it was very difficult to find him another job. After all, he could not possibly be put in charge of one particular ocean. Quite apart from the fact that in this case the work involved would not be less, only more petty, the great Poseidon could hold only a superior position. And when he was offered a post unrelated to the waters, the very idea made him feel sick, his divine breath came short and his brazen chest began to heave.

When you read a passage like this, it feels like the reader needs to play along for the sake of the story. At the sentence-level, certain phrases sound sarcastic and contemptuous: “Needless to say,” “After all, he could not possibly,” “the very idea.” All of these offer a kind of insight into the character of Poseidon and the way he looks at himself and his job, while also creating a more dynamic version of the familiar sea-god that readers would not recognize. The way Poseidon’s struggles are humanized makes the progression of thought understandable and relatable, even when the premise behind the story—Poseidon going over the accounts and wishing for more work flexibility (regardless of being a god)—feels a little ridiculous and comedic.

Understatement, or better yet, the ability to say something strange with a straight face and little follow-up, lends Kafka’s stories three (and I’m sure more) really interesting dimensions. On the one hand, his stories gain a humorous feel to them, since the narrative voice seems to downplay much of the material through omissions and subtlety. Kafka’s humor is usually lost on people, and I think the reason this happens is because it doesn’t have a punch line, it isn’t ironic, it doesn’t rely on wordplay, and there’s nothing to “get”: it is entirely based on atmospheric absurdity. Imagine a friend telling you about a dream they had, in which everything that happens can be said to barely scrape the planes of reality, and that your friend remains stoic the entire time without indicating that they see the absurdity in what they are saying. This is the humor of Kafka: it only becomes a joke once you approach it as one. The second benefit relies on the compelling draw of the narrative. This style creates mystery and demands attention, and Kafka’s stories are known for their hookable first sentences. The last effect that understatement adds to the storytelling technique is an allegorical undertone. For how short his pieces are, this is incredibly commendable. The subtlety of his stories lends to an air of waning meaning, just out of reach, but hidden somewhere in the words waiting for the reader to find it.

Essentially, Kafka’s example teaches writers that the most important details of a story aren’t always directly mentioned in the narrative—sometimes, omitting them entirely makes them more noticeable. By looking at his works, writers gain insight into the pull of the narrative that this omission creates, and how the opening sentence can take advantage of a reader’s curiousity.


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