In Franz Kafka’s first novel, Amerika (1927), a teenage boy from central Europe is sent to the US in disgrace, having “seduced” the family maid. (It later emerges that she — a giant, terrifying, Kafkaesque ogre — did the seducing.) In New York harbour, the boy is welcomed by a wealthy stranger: his uncle, who turns out to be a US senator. The ship’s captain offers congratulations: “A shining career awaits you now.”

Kafka was poking fun at the European dream of America, which had infected his own family. His cousin Otto, who had emigrated to the US speaking no English, ended up founding the brilliantly named Kafka Export Company. Like countless Europeans, I also grew up dreaming of America. The slow death of that dream has altered the European imagination...

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