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Fiction #111
(published December 5, 2002)
The Neighbour
by Franz Kafka

I am totally responsible for my own business. Two ladies with typewriters and account books in the outer office; my room with desk, cash-box, conference table, club chair and telephone: that is everything I work with. So easy to survey, so easy to carry on. I am very young and business is going well for me. I don't complain, I don't complain.

Since New Year's, the small, empty flat, which I unfortunately hesitated to rent for such a long time, has been rented by a young man. It is as mine, a room with outer office, but besides that has a kitchen. Room and outer office I clearly could have used well— sometimes my ladies felt a bit crowded—, but how would I have used the kitchen? This little worry is to blame for my hesitation to rent the flat myself. Now this young man is sitting there. Harras is his name. What he is actually doing, I don't know. His door reads: "Harras, Bureau." I made inquiries, and been been notified that it is a business similar to mine. You couldn't necessarily warn against renting to such a fellow, OI was told, Since we are dealing with a young, rising man, whose business may have a good future, but you couldn't advise to offer him credit either, since there doesn't seem to be any fortune at the present. The common information you get, if no one knows a thing.

Sometimes I meet Harras in the staircase, he always must be in an extraordinary hurry, he formally scurries past me. I haven't truly met him yet, the keys to his office are always sitting ready in his hand. In the matter of an instant he has opened the door. Like the tail of a rat, he slides in and again I am standing in front of the sign "Harras, Bureau", which I have already read more often than it deserves.

These awfully thin walls, which betray the honest man, but cover the dishonest! My telephone is attached to the wall that separates me from my neighbour Harras. But I only emphasise that as a special ironic fact. Even if it was hung on the opposite wall, you could hear everything in the neighbouring flat. I gave up saying the names of clients on the phone. But through characteristic, but unavoidable expressions, it doesn't need much cunning to guess the names. Sometimes I wriggle, having the receiver close to my ear, full of restlessness, tiptoing around the telephone, but still I can't stanch the outflow of secrets.

Owing to all these worries, my business decisions have become unsure, my voice starts shaking. What is Harras doing while I am on the telephone? If I really wanted to exaggerate— which you often must, to make things clear— I could say: Harras doesn't need a telephone, he uses mine, he shifted his sofa near the wall and listens, but I have to— when it rings— run to the telephone, receive clients' wishes, make difficult decisions, perform great prepared speeches— and through it all I am involuntarily reporting to Harras through the wall.

Maybe he doesn't even wait until the end of the call, but rises after the bit of conversation, which informed him enough about the case, scurries through the city, and before I even drop the receiver he might already be busy working against me.

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