As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. He was lying on his back, and as he lifted his head slightly, he could see several tiny, stick-thin legs wriggling helplessly. He realised that, at some point during the night, he had become some kind of beetle. His brain could not cope with this horror, and promptly shut down, propelling him back into merciful unconsciousness.
When, eventually, he woke from his stupor, he was shocked to discover that he had undergone a second transformation. He was no longer a beetle. He was a Beatle! Somehow, he had now become Ringo Starr, or, more precisely, a perfect replica of Ringo Starr circa 1964. Cautiously, he ran his hands over his hair, now become a moptop. He called out, quietly, for his Mama, and heard a lugubrious Liverpudlian accent. But Mama did not come, and in his despair he picked up a pair of drumsticks which had appeared on his bedside table, and bashed himself on the head, repeatedly and rhythmically, with a characteristic “fill”, until, once again, he lost consciousness.
There were more uneasy dreams, and when he awoke again he discovered he had undergone a third transformation. Now he had become an entirely new being. Outwardly – indeed, inwardly – he was exactly the same as he had been the previous day, no longer a beetle or a Beatle. Yet it was clear to him, as he leapt out of bed and plunged his head into a bucket of icy water and shuffled into the kitchen for a breakfast of jugged eels and reconstituted marmalade and turned on the radiogram to listen to an early morning concert of argumentative German improvised racket, that something had changed, something decisive and irreversible. But what?
Neither Mama nor Papa, nor his young sister Sophonisba, gave any indication that he was in any way different. But then they barely noticed his presence at all, as they sat at the kitchen table stuffing their gobs with cornflakes and hardboiled eggs in jelly. So concentrated were they on their munching and chewing they did not even hear the frankly godawful din from the radiogram.
He decided that the simplest way to work out what had happened to him would be to go about his usual routine, but to monitor himself. So he spent a profitable three or four hours faffing about with the inner workings of his wristwatch. When he was done, it would not only tell the time, but it would keep a continuous check on the state of his soul and his vitals. If all his tweakings were correct, then at nightfall, when the day was done, his watch would spit out a printed report, with handy bullet points. The next day, he could pass this to a consultant for analysis.
The difficulty would be to find a competent analyst. He did not require the services of a brain-quack, but of someone learned in such fields as ornithology, geology, origami, athletics, trellis work, and rustic wisdom. If necessary, he would have to consult separate experts and then correlate their findings. It was going to be an uphill struggle.
Fortunately, Gregor Samsa was no stranger to uphill struggles, for the chalet where he lived with his Mama and Papa and sister Sophonisba was at the foot of an important mountain. Every day he had to clamber across scree and up treacherous snow-covered slopes to get to the newsagent’s. That was the first part of his routine. He purchased a copy of The Daily Voodoo Dolly and a pint of warm untreated goaty milk sloppings, and then he climbed ever further up the mountainside, panting, until he reached his other chalet. He had always thought it best to have two chalets, one in which to sleep and ablute and eat breakfast, and another as a bolt-hole away from his family, in which he could while away the day staring out of the window at snow and sky and the various types of birds which flit and swoop in that sky.
But on this day he was only part of the way across the scree when his head became filled with uncertainty and doubt. His legs were like jelly. On impulse, he turned back, back to the family chalet, and he unlatched the door and slammed it shut behind him and collapsed on the carpet, across which he could see a beetle scurry. An insect, that is, not Ringo.
He lay on the floor wondering if the newsagent would be alarmed by his unaccustomed absence, and by the unsold copy of The Daily Voodoo Dolly. Would the newsagent call the helicopter police? Would they come in search of him, swooping across the sky, just like the birds? Unlike the birds, would they come scrambling down on rope ladders and kick in the chalet windows and Taser him and hoist him up into their chopper and ferry him across the important mountains to a sinister compound? Would he be dragged to a cellar and tied to a chair and interrogated under Klieg lights? Would they mistake him for Ringo Starr? Would he be forced to sing Octopus’s Garden, or would they demand that he tell them tales of Thomas The Tank Engine? All these, and other panicky questions throbbed in his brainpans until he remembered that he was not Ringo, he was neither a Beatle nor a beetle. But what in the name of Saint Spivack had he become? He got up from the carpet and went to his cupboard and took out a hammer and nails and planks and barricaded himself into the chalet. Mama and Papa and Sophonisba were out, attending an all-day archery tournament in a nearby village.
His barricading had blotted out the daylight, so he deployed an array of blubber candles here and there, on sideboards and mantelpieces and tabletops and counters. He gazed at the flames, one by one, and pondered how curious it was that this light was produced by what was once the innards of that mighty sea beast, the whale. He asked himself if his own innards might, in some future dispensation, shed light upon the world. Was that to be his destiny, as a new kind of being, in his transformed state?
Hours passed, with no hint of police helicopters, and one by one the blubber candles sputtered and guttered out, and he was left in darkness. Rather than shedding light, then, was his fate to become some kind of nocturnal being, like an owl or a bat?
He rummaged through the nooks of memory to try to recall what he had learned of the bat and the owl through years upon years of study. He remembered little, save for sounds of squeak and hoot and that both bat and owl have the gift of flight. Could he now, in his transformation, fly? He flapped his arms, testing the air, and discovered that, yes!, he could indeed fly. He rose so fast that he crashed right through the skylight in the chalet ceiling. Now he was up in the cold moonlit air, wheeling and swooping, a human starling.
Now it so happened that down below, on the path from the village, his parents and his sister were returning from the archery tournament. Looking up at the moon, they were startled to see so strange an airborne being.
“Let us fell that highly unusual flying creature,” said Mama, “We can sell the corpse to a museum and make a tidy sum. We will be able to pay for Gregor to be put in a Mercy Home for the Feckless & Bewildered.”
And the three of them each took their bows and arrows and shot him out of the sky. He plummeted to earth at their feet, thrice pierced and stone dead, and they saw that it was Gregor.
“Crikey!” said Mama, “We’ve bollocksed things up good and proper. As soon as the helicopter police find out what we’ve done we’ll be in hot water and no mistake. There’s only one thing for it. We’ll have to flee, all three of us. If we turn around now and go back to the village, we should be just in time to catch the night train to that dilapidated seaside resort a hundred miles away. There is an unseemly hotel there, where we can hole up until this kerfuffle blows over, or for the rest of our lives, depending on the pertinacity of the coppers. Let’s go!”
They made it to the railway station with seconds to spare, first dumping their bows and arrows in a skip next to the signal box. As the night train chugged out towards the seaside, they sat in their carriage, stuffing their gobs with a supper of lemon meringue pie ‘n’ boiled liver. And it was like a confirmation of their new dreams and excellent intentions that at the end of their journey their daughter sprang to her feet first and stretched her young body.
Much, but not all, of this piece is recycled, with tweaks, from On My Transformation, which appeared here in March 2012. The first sentence, and the last, were translated from the German by Willa and Edwin Muir. Everything in between was not.