Kafka’s Singing Mouse

Josephine is a singer. She’s no ordinary singer, she’s a superstar. Her fellow mouse folk, scurrying to and fro, stop in their tracks whenever they hear that she’s about to sing. They run to her, they fawn. She loves to give impromptu performances on secluded corners. While she’s not a diva, she pitches a fit when she feels underappreciated; she stomps her feet and swears and at times she even bites. So unladylike. But she always calms down. She opens her small arms wide and lengthens her throat, tipping her nose up to the sky, and warbles out her songs. Her singing is remarkable, even rare, as the mouse folk are not known to be a musical lot, preferring silence to sound.

But wait. Are her notes “pearl-like” or are they “staccato?” She has her detractors. If you listen closely, one boldly admits, her singing sounds like ordinary piping, for which it takes no talent. The mouse folk are known to pipe, a common trait, especially when they are happy. Why, this critic asks, do the mouse folk fall for her act? Because their lives are so filled with dangers, her concerts are respites from the stress. Because they don’t have time to properly grow up and make choices in their best interests. From the moment they are born they see adulthood speeding toward them like a bullet train, pushing them out of their cradles to forage on their own, childhood gone in a flash in the hopes their dispersing will help them to survive.

The tiny songstress feels her singing indeed lessens their suffering and makes them stronger. She is their savior. Yet she mustn’t strain her voice, she sings best when she is fully rested. So she asks, not the first time, to be exempted from the daily humdrum work of earning her bread and from their collective struggle. But she has overreached, the mouse folk say no, no exemption. And there are the vicious whispers: she’s self-absorbed, she’s self-deluded; she’s not really protecting the community, they are protecting her; she’s demanding, she thinks she’s better than they; and worst of all, she’s a fraud, a poser.

But it doesn’t end there. She can see her art isn’t being recognized, isn’t taken seriously. And in hopes of changing their minds about the exemption and, perhaps, a bit in retribution, she threatens to sing less well. She cuts her ‘grace notes’ short—only no one hears the difference. She tries other ruses but to no avail. Her last stunt though is the one that will last: she vanishes completely, she slips out of the tale, abandoning the mouse folk. Josephine “will happily lose herself in the numberless throng of the heroes of her people, and soon, will rise to the heights of redemption and be forgotten like all her brothers.”

This is the story of Franz Kafka’s story “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk.” He wrote it just before his death in 1924, and stuffed it full of wit and wryness, turning it into a perfect reflection on the relationship between an artist and his/her community. And on what it is like to be a mouse.

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