My interest was piqued as soon as I came across the title of Haruki Murakami’s short story in the New Yorker, “Samsa in Love.” I have always been fascinated by The Metamorphosis, which I read for the first time during the same month I also encountered Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Matryona’s Home. These two stories sat with me and pestered me for a long time, because I couldn’t reconcile the differences between the respective protagonists. To me, it seemed like Gregor Samsa and Matryona were doing the same thing but producing different outcomes. Both were living their lives for others, and fulfilling the simple demands of life day after day after day. And yet the first one became a bug, while the latter became the heroine of her village.
It took me a good while to realize the difference, and its something that I’m still learning. Gregor Samsa did everything out of duty and obligation. He was not choosing to support his family or go to work every day; instead he was oppressed by a sense of what he “ought” to be doing, and in the end it took away his humanity. Matryona, on the other hand, made a free choice to love the people around her, forgive the wrongs that were done to her without letting her dignity be trampled on. She made the greatest gift by using her freedom to serve her village, whereas Gregor never learned to exercise any freedom at all.
With all this in mind, I was eager to read Murakami’s piece translated from the original Japanese. In it, Gregor Samsa wakes again in what seems to be post World War II Prague, to find that he is back in his human body. We later learn that turmoil and upheaval are overtaking the city outside, and that Samsa’s family has presumably fled the house in a panic after hearing Gregor’s attempts to unlock his bolted bedroom door. Samsa, unaware of the turbulence occurring outside, knows only that he is hungry and cold, and must attend to these basic needs. Once he does so, he hears the doorbell ring. Here begins his strange new experience of falling in love with the funny young hunchbacked locksmith who has answered his family’s frantic calls to check on the lock of Samsa’s bedroom door.
The point that caught me in the end is the same one that resonates through Matryona’s story. The locksmith makes a thoughtful remark to Samsa in the last pages of the story. She muses that “Everything is blowing up around us, but there are still those who care about a broken lock, and others who are dutiful enough to try to fix it…But maybe that’s the way it should be. Maybe working on the little things as dutifully and honestly as we can is the only way to stay sane when the world is falling apart.” The story concludes with Samsa deciding to do just that. Returned to human form and motivated now by love, he does not trouble himself over what he cannot control, but sets out instead to accomplish what the present moment requires of him.
By Marie Murray, Director of Operations for WYA North America