FRANZ KAFKA was born in Prague in 1883. He wrote his world-famous books in Prague - in the German language. And after his death at age 41, he was buried in Prague. But for all practical purposes, this Prague native always has remained a nonperson in his hometown, his brooding presence felt everywhere but rarely mentioned. While alive, he was considered a minor esoteric writer. By the time he had become famous for novels and stories about people struggling with anxiety, guilt, and isolation in a surreal world, the Nazis had taken over Czechoslovakia and banned his work.
The postwar Stalinist regime banned his books again. During the 1968 Prague Spring, his reputation was revived, only to fall into disgrace after the 1968 Soviet invasion. His former house, now a bookshop, has a sign in Czech: ``Here lived Franz Kafka.'' Inside, his books are unavailable.
This sad situation finally may change. A Kafka festival was held in a small avant-garde theater this spring, and the government-controlled Odeon publishing house plans to begin putting out his books later this year. ``The Castle'' is to be published by December, ``Amerika'' next year, followed by the short stories and finally the masterpiece ``The Trial.''
For Josef Simon, Odeon's editor-in-chief, the battle over Kafka has wide overtones. Ever since the Soviet invasion, dogmatic cultural policies have isolated older renowned artists and choked off development of younger authors. Mr. Simon wants to begin publishing Czechoslovakia's famous living authors who have been banned and exiled, such as Milan Kundera and Josef Skvorecky, and even those who have opposed the regime from within, such as Ludvik Vaculik and Vaclav Havel.
``The fight for Kafka is a first step,'' Simon says. ``The next step is a fight for Kundera, Skvorecky, Vaculik, and Havel.''
So far, official permission has not been received for reprinting any of these banned works. Even the publication of Kafka's works has been held up. Originally scheduled for early this spring, printing has been delayed until the end of the year. Simon blames ``paper shortages.''
The actual problem could be political. While neighboring Poland and Hungary have eased censorship and repression, Czechoslovakia's hard-line rulers are resisting Mikhail Gorbachev's reform wave, only giving ground slowly and unevenly under pressure from home and abroad.
When Mr. Havel was imprisoned earlier this year for ``hooliganism,'' several thousand leading government-supported artists signed a protest petition. After his release in May, the same group of artists signed a new petition, ``Several Sentences,'' calling for basic rights such as freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and freedom of religion.
The authorities rejected the appeal for dialogue. Police have warned Havel that he is violating his conditions for parole and arrested some leading organizers of independent culture. These actions provoke increasing criticism within the party.
``It's uncomfortable to see these artists start criticizing us,'' says Milan Jelenek, foreign editor of the communist party newspaper Rude Pravo. ``This is a dynamic movement we must consider.''
The debate over Kafka plays an crucial role in this fluid situation. No author is a better symbol of the negative tendencies of totalitarian communism. Dissidents often use the term ``Kafkaesque'' to describe their own plight of living under a regime that signs human-rights declarations and then jails its critics, that destroys public life while claiming to base its rule on popular support.
On a deeper level, Kafka's universe is colored everywhere by human fallibility, from the menacing anonymous bureaucracy of ``The Trial'' to the grisly imagery of the individual transformed into the cockroach of ``Metamorphosis.'' Perfection is impossible. That goes against the socialist idea of a utopian society.
Czech communists long have considered these ideas decadent and nihilist, to the point of sprinkling them with potential antisemitism. Vera Adlova of the Czech Union of Writers even insists Kafka is not a Czech writer. He was the son of a bourgeois merchant. He was Jewish. And he wrote in German.
``He's a German writer who lived in a double ghetto,'' Ms. Adlova says. ``How can he be a Czech writer if he never wrote in Czech?
But for Odeon's Simon, Kafka represents an important strand of Czechoslovak culture. Until their tragic end in the Holocaust, Jews had played an important role for centuries in Prague's literary life. Kafka was not alone: Prague at the turn of the century was a hotbed of talented writers, many of them also Jewish and writing in English, including among others Max Brod, Felix Weltsch, and Oskar Baum.
``In recognizing Kafka, we're recognizing that a whole part of our history is not lost,'' says Simon. ``Czech literature includes this Jewish-German literature.''
For reformers, Kafka long has represented a rallying cry. In 1963, at the famous conference in Liblice devoted to the 80th anniversary of the author's birth, Prof.Eduard Goldstucker rejected the conventional interpretation of him as a ``decadent'' bourgeois. To Professor Goldstucker and others, Kafka wrested with his innermost self, and in clear, precise language, gave shape to the burden of human choice.
``The debate about Kafka turned into a general debate about culture,'' says Josef Cemak, a Kafka specialist at Odeon. ``It didn't shed new light on Kafka the author, it just permitted him to be considered as a literary, not a political figure.''
Kafka's rehabilitation signaled the beginning of the cultural thaw that would swell into the Prague Spring. Goldstucker soon became head of the Writers' Union. The communist authorities commissioned a sculpture by the talented sculptor Karel Hadlik, which was duly unveiled in 1965.
Kafka's brooding facial features are shown life-size, cast in black bronze and mounted above eye level on the wall of a drab building on Maisel Street - the author's birthplace. Even after the Soviet invasion and the rebanning of his work, the bronze sculpture was left in place as a concession to tourism.
The tourists flock to see the building, to Kafka's own house on Alchemists' Lane, and to his grave in the Jewish Cemetery. But Adlova and other hardliners insist that there is little interest in Kafka.
``He's demanding, very intellectual,'' she explains. ``Few people would want to read him.''
She may be in for a surprise. In a country which often has lived under strict foreign domination, writers traditionally have played a more important role than they do in the West. They have always earned respect for articulating otherwise ignored views.
When Odeon published a novel by William Faulkner, it sold 30,000 copies in two days - more than Random House had sold of the same book in 30 years. Kafka probably would prove a similar smash.
``The people who don't like Kafka are those people who have not read a single line,'' says Simon. ``Unfortunately, those people are in power.''