For some years I’ve been intrigued with two unrelated stories and yet it only dawned on me recently that other than in my head, they do actually have some connections to each other.
The stories are Franz Kafka’s My Destination and W Somerset Maugham’s Appointment in Samarra. They are both short tales with common details; masters, servants, horses and the everyman qualities of timelessness and ubiquity. Yet their messages and conclusions are opposites, albeit askew ones.
My Destination is taken from Kafka’s Parables and Paradoxes. It’s an ironic title because he doesn’t actually have a destination in mind, only the rather solitary prequisite to get ‘away from here’. Perhaps he was aware of Maugham’s Appointment in Samarra (or more likely the original version), and decided that having no particular destination is safer than naming one, after all, a named destination may turn out to be your final one and by not naming it, he’s dodging the bullet.
Both stories – which are reproduced below – are based around a journey with the backdrop of fate. Kafka’s tale (perhaps out of character) suggests that Fate will carry him to where he’s meant to be and he takes a rather open-ended and dare we say, a ‘devil may care’ attitude. Maugham does not tackle free will or an ‘On the Road’ narrative at all and he bluntly demonstrates that destiny and fate are inescapable.
There are other interesting elements that bubble beneath the surface. Kafka’s non-destination experience is cold and detached. He saddles-up alone and judging by the bugle call, we get a sense that he’s the fugitive; a man ‘on the run’. Perhaps he does actually know his goal and mistrusts the servant and pretends otherwise. WSM’s vision is filled with warmth and mutual respect, so much so that the master is prepared to lend the servant a horse and to tackle Death on his gauche behaviour. Their respective social positions become meaningless in the face of mortality and the Master demonstrates empathy and sensitivity.
I gave orders for my horse to be brought round from the stables. The servant did not understand me. I myself went to the stable, saddled my horse and mounted. In the distance I heard a bugle call, I asked him what this meant. He knew nothing and had heard nothing. At the gate he stopped me, asking: “Where are you riding to, master?” “I don’t know,” I said, “only away from here, away from here. Always away from here, only by doing so can I reach my destination.” “And so you know your destination?” he asked. “Yes,” I answered, “didn’t I say so? Away-From-Here, that is my destination.” “You have no provisions with you,” he said. “I need none,” I said, “the journey is so long that I must die of hunger if I don’t get anything on the way. No provisions can save me. For it is, fortunately, a truly immense journey.”
“The Appointment in Samarra”
(as retold by W. Somerset Maugham )
The speaker is Death
There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture, now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threating getsture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.
Other references: http://answers.google.com/answers/threadview/id/95435.html