A new advocate has come to the bar, Bucephalus, Alexander the Great’s horse. The narrator acknowledges that, as a horse, Bucephalus will have an awkward time. No sooner does the narrator introduce Bucephalus than his mind drifts towards the horse’s past, to Alexander the Great. Where have the great men gone. But, being gone, perhaps it is better to be like Bucephalus. Abandon the battlefield, and devote oneself to quiet study.
That is the plot, but this story is not a plot. Progressive sentences do not unfold events, but unpeel the narrator’s mind, his prejudice, nostalgia, tone-deafness. The narrator, by telling us about Bucephalus, shows himself. Bucephalus is an Othered individual – it doesn’t matter exactly what marginalised group he stands for. What matters is how the narrator, a member of the dominant class, views this Other.
Statements of escalating prejudice make up the first paragraph, all of them disguised as benign commentary. Depending on whether the narrator is ‘well-intentioned’ or not, each sentence is either tone-deaf or back-handed.
‘We have a new advocate, Dr Bucephalus. His exterior offers few clues to the time he used to be the battle charger of Alexander the Great. However, anyone familiar with his background will not fail to notice certain things. On the stairs recently, I saw a very simple court servant watching our advocate with the appraising eye of a regular race-goer, as, raising his thighs mightily, he mounted the marble steps with ringing strides.’
By saying Bucephalus’ ‘exterior offers few clues’ about his past, the narrator reveals Bucphalus’ past. Even a reader who knew the name of Alexander’s horse would not think ‘Dr Bucephalus’ refers to that Bucephalus, yet the narrator forces this information on the reader. It has the tone of saying, ‘You’d never know he was a Jew.’ The narrator then points out anyone ‘familiar with his background’ will notice Bucephalus’ tells. One of those people ‘familiar with his background’, the narrator adds, is a court servant – not just a court servant, but a ‘very simple’ court servant. In short, everyone knows. But their knowledge does not become awed respect. The servant watches Bucephalus like a ‘regular race-goer’. Even Alexander’s horse is just a horse. A regular class hierarchy would put the lawyer Bucephalus above the servant, but even servants see the Othered Bucephalus as inferior. The paragraph ends with what might have been a compliment in some other context: ‘raising his thighs mightily, he mounted the marble steps with ringing strides.’ A compliment, but one akin to telling an African-American kid, ‘You want to be a lawyer? But you’re so good at track-and-field.’
The narrator ‘sympathises’ with Bucephalus’ position. He reports his groups’ orthodoxy, what they ‘tell one another’, that ‘with society ordered as it is today, Bucephalus is in a difficult situation.’ This acknowledgement of racism has the fatalism and vagueness one expects from members of the dominant class, who are aware of racism, but experience none of it.
Despite his mock concern, the narrator cares little about Bucephalus’ pain. ‘Bucephalus is in a difficult situation, and for that reason, and for his historical role, he deserves compassion.’ Notice ‘his historical role’ tucked away there, as if Bucephalus’ service under Alexander only added to the bar’s compassion. At least for the narrator, it is the only reason for compassion.
The story goes for around a page, and yet one-third devotes itself to Alexander. Not Bucephalus and Alexander, but Alexander solely. Bucephalus fades from the story, as the narrator drifts into nationalistic nostalgia. ‘Even then the gates of India proved unattainable, though the king’s sword was certainly pointed in the right direction.’
Bucephalus has joined the bar, but he will never belong. Only twice in the piece is the first-person plural used, in the first and last sentence. ‘We have a new advocate, Dr Bucephalus’ and ‘[Bucephalus] reads by quiet lamplight, and turns the pages of our folios.’ Both pronouns could include Bucephalus, but in the context of the piece, I doubt it. It is we, the lawyers, as opposed to him, the equine lawyer. The final ‘our’ has no need to be there. The narrator need only have said the horse pages through ‘old folios’, but no, these are ‘our’ old folios, not his. We allow him to page through, from our compassion.
This is the bigotry of the narrator: even in his compassion, he excludes. Bucephalus may be a lawyer, but the narrator will always view him with pitying condescension. He cannot even think about Bucephalus himself. He thinks of Bucephalus’ past with Alexander, he thinks of how the court servant views him, how the bar views him, or he thinks of Alexander solely. Only in the final paragraph does the narrator even attempt to enter Bucephalus’ mind.
As an examination of a particular kind of racism, Kafka importantly did not have the narrator express hate. The narrator does not openly mock or despise the horse. No, the narrator’s sin – equal but distinct from hate – is an absolute lack of respect.
Quotes taken from Metamorphosis and Other Stories (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition), by Franz Kafka, translated by Michael Hoffmann, 2008