Half the Story by Ian Duhig

Half the Story

Franz Kafka, the story goes, encountered a little girl in the park
where he walked regularly. She was crying. She’d lost her doll.
Kafka helped the girl search for the doll, but they couldn’t find it.
They arranged to meet there next day to look again for her doll,
but still they could not find it. When they met for the third time,
Kafka gave her a tiny letter that he told her he’d found nearby.
She read “Don’t be sad: I’m only travelling. I’ll write I promise!”
And every day that summer, when Kafka and the little girl met,
he’d read a new letter to her describing places the doll visited,
what it did there and who it met. The little girl was comforted.
When the holiday was over and she had to go back to school,
He gave her a doll that he said was the lost prodigal returned,
and, if it seemed a little different from the doll of her memory,
a note pinned to its scarf explained: “My travels changed me.”

Or so ends this version of the story, popular with therapists,
but in Dora Diament’s own account, our one first-hand source,
there was no new doll, nor a message of change and growth;
instead, Dora had described a final letter sent to the little girl
detailing how the doll met its soul mate and had married him;
how it would be too busy with its new family to write again,
enjoining the little girl to seek similar fulfilment in her own life.
Dora also noted how this affair had driven Kafka to distraction,
who’d endured white nights, tortured by his own compassion,
feverishly thinking up new adventures for his changeling doll
made out of letters and lies and love; how this correspondence
had been maintained in this fashion for a period of three weeks ―
as long as that holiday when Dora Diament had first met Franz,
a place with a name that I only half-recall now, Graal-something.

(first published in Poetry London)

Ian Duhig has written seven books of poetry, most recently Digressions, Smokestack Books 2014, and Pandorama, Picador 2010. His next book, The Blind Roadmaker, is forthcoming from Picador.