Paul Greenberg

"We gladly admit that until 1909 the annual reports of the Institute, with their figures documenting a deficit that seemed to spread almost like a living organism, offered little encouragement to feel excitement. Instead, these reports succeeded in damping all the Institute's hopes for the future; the Institute seemed simply to be a corpse, whose only living element was its growing deficit."

Goodness. Sound familiar? Young Kafka sounds like a Republican budget-balancer, even a Tea Party type with a certain flair for indignation.

But things had changed with the arrival of a new director, Robert Marschner, in 1909. Reforms were introduced, all for the better. Like a new, statistically verifiable system of risk assessment for different occupations, with different insurance premiums to match. The riskier the job, the higher the insurance rate. And the higher Herr Kafka rose in the bureaucracy, receiving regular promotions and even tenure. Till he was adjudicating appeals and suggesting even more reforms.

Franz Kafka the author, who prefigured the existential angst of so much of modern literature, also turns out to be Franz Kafka the bureaucrat who wrote "Measures for Preventing Accidents from Wood-Planing Machines" and "Accident Prevention in Quarries."

Young Kafka would soon find his well-organized world collapsing all about him in war and revolution. An enlightened public servant, his response was to advocate a psychiatric clinic for soldiers traumatized by their wartime experience. Shell-shocked, they were called then. The name of the diagnosis has changed over the years and wars -- battle fatigue, PTSD -- but the military still has not managed to deal adequately with the condition that Franz Kafka recognized early on. In his office as in his art, he foreshadowed the troubled future.

Not even the editors of this latest collection of his writings may fully recognize just how talented a bureaucrat he was. They still tend to dismiss Franz Kafka's day job as an impediment to his artistic expression, and approach actuarial work as some kind of impenetrable thicket of statistics. But that's understandable. They're just following the lead of Franz Kafka himself.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.