Balint does a good job of weighing up the competing claims, and is careful not to get bogged down in legal details. What we get is an exquisitely human drama peopled with an eccentric cast of characters that beautifully evokes the early days of Israel, the sadness of the exiles, and the long shadow cast by the Holocaust — a tragedy that claimed the lives of Kafka’s three sisters. But his book is at its best in its portrait of Kafka as a man, whose “infinite yearning for independence and freedom” left him in a state of “stubborn homelessness and non-belonging”.
Balint, a Jerusalem-based academic and journalist, has minutely researched every twist and turn of this politico-legal saga, and tells it with even-handed seriousness. Although his ceaseless namechecking of all the participating librarians and lawyers can become tedious, he is astute in presenting the action in Kafkaesque terms. When a top Israeli lawyer bursts into court, his appearance “came as a shock, a sudden baring of the iron machinery of the state’s legal apparatus”. One chapter starts with a nod to the first sentence of The Trial: “As Eva Hoffe awoke in Tel Aviv one morning in August 2016 from uneasy dreams, she found herself transformed into a disinherited woman.” Although his ceaseless namechecking of all the participating librarians and lawyers can become tedious, he is astute in presenting the action in Kafkaesque terms. When a top Israeli lawyer bursts into court, his appearance “came as a shock, a sudden baring of the iron machinery of the state’s legal apparatus”. One chapter starts with a nod to the first sentence of The Trial: “As Eva Hoffe awoke in Tel Aviv one morning in August 2016 from uneasy dreams, she found herself transformed into a disinherited woman.”
Indeed, one of the themes running throughout Benjamin Balint’s fascinating and forensically scrupulous account of the history of Kafka’s papers is the writer’s deeply ambiguous relationship – if it can even be called that – with Israel, or, as it still was in his time, Palestine. ...The real loser was not the Marbach archive, for all the affront it suffered, but Eva, who died in August 2018. Balint, in a passage that Kafka would surely have admired, sums up the matter eloquently and movingly when he writes: “Like the man from the country in Kafka’s parable ‘Before the Law’, Eva Hoffe remained stranded and confounded outside the door of the law … "
Benjamin Balint’s Kafka’s Last Trial is a legal and philosophical black comedy of the first water, complete, like all the best adventure stories, with a physical treasure to be won or lost. Balint lays out with cool, collected passion the full absurdity of the 2011 court struggle which climaxed when a couple of boxes of aged, yellowing jottings, upon which an elderly Tel Aviv lady had allegedly allowed her cats to sit for many years, were taken under armed guard, besieged by writs and counter-writs, to the highest court in Israel.
The question of who owns Kafka is at the heart of Benjamin Balint’s thought-provoking and assiduously researched Kafka’s Last Trial, which (to simplify) is about the attempt by the state of Israel to prevent the sale of Kafka’s manuscripts from a private collection there to anywhere overseas, particularly to the German Literature Archive in Marbach. Spoiler alert for those who were not reading the newspapers in 2016: the state won. But Balint’s book is not so much about the outcome as it is about the arguments that were brought forward.
It is an unusual hybrid: part courtroom procedural, part double portrait of Kafka and Brod, part account of the postwar construction of Israeli and German national identity. As with his previous book, an admirably levelheaded history of Commentary magazine, Balint writes most naturally in the interrogative mode, preferring the probing of difficult questions to easy resolutions. A gifted cultural historian with a scholarly sensibility, he is perhaps less suited to the role of investigative reporter.
Balint’s narrative expertly juxtaposes the court battle—which grows evermore convoluted as the decades progress—with a tale of loss told in multiples: the deterioration of Franz Kafka’s health; the breakdown, in the mid–20th century, of Max Brod’s own status as an author, as the dead friend he sanctified overshadowed him completely; and finally, the downfall of Eva Hoffe, in spirit and body alike. It is her whom Balint renders in the most painful and jarring detail, and it is her loss—as her own health fails and Kafka’s and Brod’s own intentions never become any clearer—that we feel most acutely, despite who may or may not actually be in the right.