Franz Kafka is sick. Terminally ill. He is living the last year of his life before tuberculosis kills him.
It’s 1923. Kafka is 40. Every afternoon, he walks in a park near his home. One afternoon, he encounters a young girl. She is crying. Kafka asks her what is wrong. She tells him she has lost her doll.
He looks for the girl’s doll, but cannot find it. To appease the girl, Kafka makes up a story to explain the doll’s disappearance. He tells her that her doll has gone off on a journey.
The girl is skeptical. “How do you know that?”
“Because she wrote me a letter.”
“Do you have it?”
“No, I left it at home. But I’ll bring it with me tomorrow.”
Kafka goes home. He takes out pen and paper and starts to write. He takes great care with this letter. He is determined that this will be a beautiful letter that will in some way replace the little girl’s grief at losing her doll.
He knows his letter is a lie, but he wants it to be a beautiful lie, a perfect piece of fiction.
The next day, Kafka returns to the park. The little girl is waiting for him. She hasn’t yet learnt to read, so Kafka reads the letter to her.
The doll explains that she has gone away to see the world, to make new friends. She loves the little girl, but longs for a change of scenery. She promises to write every day to tell the little girl of her new adventures. And so she does.
One of the great writers, in the last year of his life, a time when time is the most precious commodity, takes time out to write letters to this young girl.
For weeks he writes a daily imaginary letter from a lost doll and reads it to the girl in the park.
The doll grows up. She goes to school. She meets new friends. She reassures the little girl of her undying love for her.
As Kafka writes, he knows he must prepare the little girl for the day when the doll reveals she won’t be coming home. He’s not sure how he will break the news without breaking the magic spell.
For days he tries to think of how to end the letters. He finally decides that the doll will marry. She writes to describe her handsome young husband. She describes the wedding in detail. Finally, she describes the pretty house in the country where she and her husband now live.
In the last line of this last letter, she says that she is happy and that she won’t be coming back. She says goodbye to her dear friend.
By now, the little girl is over her grief at losing her doll. She is happy for her doll in her new life.
Kafka has given this little girl something to replace her lost doll. He has given her a story. And she has lost herself in that story. Inside the story’s imaginary world, the pain of her real world disappears.
That’s the power of storytelling. A good book, an engrossing film, transport us to a parallel universe. We lose track of time. We forget where we are. Maybe even who we are.
There’s something that I find remarkable about this story. Many of us, knowing that our days are numbered, might choose to indulge ourselves during our final months. I know people who have done this, returned to the first love of their lives, gone on one final grand world adventure.
Kafka, who hadn’t married in his 40 years, had fallen in love with Dora, a woman half his age, knowing that their love would be fleeting.
Other terminally ill people, sensing their time drawing to a close, launch themselves into a fury of productivity. One of the great writers might have been tempted to write one last great novel.
Instead, Kafka devoted his energy and focused his skills on writing imaginary letters from a lost doll to a little girl he happened to meet in a park.
So this is the other message I get from this story, the reward of generosity. According to Dora, Kafka put more time and took more care in crafting these letters than he did in his literature. He didn’t need to write the doll’s letters. He chose to.
Was he repaid for his generosity? I think he was. He was repaid by the little girl’s belief in the stories he wrote and read to her, by her acceptance of her doll’s disappearance.
Kafka had made a stranger happy – and made himself happy simultaneously.
Kafka’s reward couldn’t be measured in cash.
When we choose to help others, with no regard for financial gain, with no possibility of financial gain, we are helping ourselves in ways immeasurably more valuable.
Generosity is self-rewarding.