‘A Country Doctor’ by Franz Kafka

I sometimes think ‘A Country Doctor’ is my favourite piece of short fiction. I will never get to the bottom of it. Walter Benjamin had it that every line in Kafka is allegory. Which is to say that every phrase, every image, withstands thousands of readings. And the closer I look at this story, the more its meanings split, double, triple, squirm in the mind like cells in mitosis. It begins with the stunning sentence (one I’ll admit I cribbed for a story of my own) “I was in great perplexity”, and goes on from there, rattling forward with the force of a cold and gnawing nightmare, filled with frustration, sickness, riddles, and hellish visions. There is a groom who bites a servant girl on the face. There is a worm-filled fatal wound that is simultaneously a precious flower. Indeed, many things described are other, often opposite things. The doctor becomes a patient. In a moment charged with mystic import, he is ritually stripped and laid down beside the florid wound of the boy whose life he fails to save. Meanwhile the villagers sing, “Only a doctor, only a doctor”. The story is flanked by two metaphysical creatures, two horses named “Brother” and “Sister” who teleport the doctor through time and space from one act of the story to the other. In both, he is rendered impotent by time. He is present at just the wrong moment. Those two horses grow in my mind the more I read this story that I will never figure out. Inscrutable dark creatures of great power, they are terrifyingly free of the binds of reality, of space, of time.

First published as ‘Der Landarzt’ in Der Landartz, 1919. First published in English in In the Penal Colony, translated by Willa and Edwin Muir, Schocken, 1948. Now collected widely, including in The Complete Short Stories, Vintage, 1999

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