Forgive a personal reminiscence – maybe it will trigger one of your own. As a late teenager long ago, I wasn’t ready for Kafka; reading The Castle was unsettling. I was drawn into the frustration of K’s experiences but I was also irritated by the lack of what I thought of as plot. This was all outside my frame of reference; I couldn’t work out what kind of book I was reading.
Echoes of Kafka came quite early as I read Anything That Isn’t This; partly because the 17-year-old central character, Frank Palp, lives in a city where no-one is to be trusted, everyone is observed. ‘The Student’ sits, day in day out, in the corner of the cramped flat of Frank’s family, making notes which they know will be despatched to the Ministry offices up at the Castle. Frank is coming to the end of schooldays devoid of intellectual or social excitement, without laughter or invention. His life, everyone’s life, is Grey; both literally in the grime and mist of the streets, and spiritually. Along those streets anxious figures scurry by, hunched against the bullets of the rumoured Sniper on the rooftops. Frank’s future offers no change, no colour. He might get a clerical job up at the Ministry, much like his father, once a soldier hero, now faceless in the warren of corridors in the Castle.
This isn’t a British dystopia, following eco or nuclear disasters which adolescent readers (and viewers) know well enough. Take the citizens’ surnames: Prothorax, Calypter, Pulvillus, Spiracle, Cremaster; yet first names are familiar – Frank, Dawn, Olivia, though there’s also a Petra. We’re not in the reader’s present: no mobiles, no laptops, no social media, though there are grindingly boring Ministry films on television. At once, we’re here and elsewhere.
Searching for solid ground as I read, I settled for a location in Eastern Europe, before the Wall came down. Later, the Acknowledgements at the end of the book confirmed that Mr Priestley’s novel had found its origins in two visits to Prague (the people as much as the place); and then the publisher’s blurb reported that the Children’s Laureate, no less, had detected ‘the unmistakeable whiff of Kafka’. By that time, though, location and literary influences had become less important. As in my youthful reading of Kafka, I’d been failing to let the text shape how to read. This novel surely invites a flexible, shifting response, and readers will make many different readings.
Frank is searching throughout the book; for example, trying to discover what loving a woman might mean or wondering whether he can ease the stranglehold the state has upon him as a citizen. He is looking for colour amongst the Grey, for a life of the imagination, and finds it only in visits to the grave of his writer/storyteller grandfather, who tells him fabulous tales from underground. Episodes such as these, and the appearance of a Ghost Tram which rides the rails of the empty city long after curfew, may help a young reader to look beyond the literal.
Frank’s search reveals that he is not alone. Even The Student turns out to have feelings, and risks his own death to help Frank; while Dawn, the girl upstairs, is far wiser than Frank in matters of love. In the end, not unlike Coleridge’s Mariner, Frank puts others’ needs before his own at some risk to himself. It’s a step he couldn’t have taken 400 pages earlier. He is moving from self-absorption towards awareness of others. Illustrations (by Priestley) extend the text, reinforcing the sense of menace and inscrutability which oppresses Frank. Priestley tells us in his Acknowledgements that the book is ‘not about Prague – although Prague lends a lot to the location. But I grew up in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the 1970s and it has far more to do with my teenage feelings of needing to escape from what I felt was a life that did not, and could never, fit me’. Implicitly, the novel could well teach much about growing as a reader; a powerful, memorable experience – at once, allegory and adventure.