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Inside Kafka’s Burrow

Franz Kafka is known for creating a particular type of closed-up and self-sufficient, ongoing allegory; a world which seems alive by itself.

Incomplete, or endless?

The Burrow is a short story, written by Franz Kafka as he was nearing the end of his life. The story was left incomplete, yet it can be argued that it belongs to the type of story which would never actually reach an end, regardless of how many pages might be added: the narration has already covered events up to the present time, but can always include further elaboration on the reasons behind the narrator’s bleak outlook on his situation.

It is, in that, very typical of a narrative by Kafka... The reader can be reminded of a quite poignant claim by another one of 20th century’s great literary figures, Jorge Luis Borges, who wrote – regarding the incomplete state of Kafka’s novel “The Trial” – that such works always stay incomplete, and simultaneously also are, in a way, already complete: because between each two chapters or parts another one can always be added, and never reach a final status of completeness. Borges likened this trait, of works like Kafka’s The Trial, specifically to the arithmetical quality of a “continuum” such as the one of real numbers: between any two real numbers one can always find more numbers; for example there is an infinite progression of numbers between 2 and 3: an infinity of intermediate fractions. Likewise, in a work by Franz Kafka, the reader often finds that the space for more elaboration increases exponentially.

It is only in those works of his which present each and every moment in their timeline (a good example of such a work would be either the novel “The Castle”, or a large part of the novel “Amerika”) where we may accept that all which was potentially of value to the story has already been covered.

Franz Kafka

Franz Kafka

Inside the Burrow

Such is not at all the case in the story about the Burrow... Not only do we not know the full background of the narrator’s pessimistic mindset, we aren’t even aware of just what type of creature this narrator is! Given he had built a burrow – a vast area underground, consisting of many rooms and interlinking corridors, a great hall, and even a labyrinth to trap potential invaders – using his own head and claws, we can assume that he is similar to a mole. He feeds on the carcasses of small animals, and a secondary food-source is secured thought hunting tinier beings, that venture inside his burrow.

The Burrow is his home. The one place in the world that fully belongs to him. And despite the fact that his possession of such a home makes him at times ecstatic – most of the forest creatures wouldn’t even dream of having anything like it – the ownership of this elaborate underground fortress has also been the cause of his misery, for it is an almost never-ending source of anxiety.

What Kind of Burrow is This?

Kafka is famous for penning complicated allegories. If we approach this story as one such allegory we may come up with a few interpretations as to the meaning of the Burrow itself. It is, for example, quite safe to assume that it can be a metaphor for the mental world, or the realm of imagination: Kafka built up his inner world, and kept focusing on it, to the point where he was faced with severe consequences for his self-imposed virtual exile to the cerebral plane of thoughts and dreams... His diaries and letters provide us with ample backing for such a statement. And yet we should, perhaps, be careful if we are to venture upon a complete deciphering of the story:

There exist, in that dark world, below the forest, where the Burrow expands in silence and is forever reworked by its creator, elements which cannot easily be accounted for. Among those – by decision of the writer himself – the focus falls mostly upon an unseen source of imminent danger: A persistent, and faint, noise, heard for a while now by the narrator, and one which, when he failed to discover its source, caused him to begin imagining it as being not at all likely to belong to the original suspects he had in mind: The Burrow-maker at first was of the view that either some tiny forest diggers, in conjunction with the sound mechanics of the place themselves, were responsible for the strange noise: it could have been produced by new formations of tiny corridors in the Burrow, attributed to the blind and otherwise inconsequential work of those beings. But the narrator cannot find any proof at all to back such a conclusion, and consequently moves on to imagine something truly horrible as being behind the noise...


A Dreadful Hypothesis

Maybe what is causing the low noise isn’t itself some small animal, or a group of microscopic beings, but instead has massive size; and just happens to be very far away from the Burrow for the time being. The narrator imagines this monster as having such brute strength that it will simply annihilate the entire Burrow the moment it reaches it! There is nothing to do so as to defend against such an enemy!

The entire story is presenting how this poor creator endlessly rethinks of a past, when he might have been still able to come up with a plan, and to have created the Burrow in a significantly different way... Bringing about even a fraction of those changes now would be utterly impossible. The Burrow is to remain pretty much as it currently is, and await its likely end, which will be both cataclysmic and brutal...


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© 2018 Kyriakos Chalkopoulos


Kyriakos Chalkopoulos (author) from Thessaloniki, Greece on August 12, 2018:

Thank you, Eesha!

The Burrow is my favourite story by F. Kafka... I was luckly enough to be given the opportunity to translate it!

Eesha from Lahore on August 12, 2018:

A wonderful article!