THE TRIAL BY FRANZ KAFKA

[P] was woken one morning by the sound of sniggering coming from the corner of his room. As he opened his eyes he saw two figures emerge out of the shadows and approach the bed. ‘We are here to investigate,’ one said. ‘We are the police,’ said the other. [P] was disconcerted, he had never woken to find two policemen in his room before. ‘I haven’t reported a crime,’ said [P]. ‘There must be some mistake.’ ‘There is no mistake,’ said one of the policemen. His colleague had taken up a position beside [P]’s bookshelves. ‘See here, your copy of The Trial is missing!’ [P] laughed meekly. This must be some kind of practical joke, he thought to himself, but if it was a joke it wasn’t funny, and, besides, who let the men into the room? ‘I can see,’ he said seriously, ‘that my copy of The Trial has indeed been moved. Perhaps it is somewhere else in the room.’ The two policemen solemnly shook their heads. ‘In any case, even if it has been stolen, a criminal investigation is unnecessary. I will simply buy a new copy, maybe even a nicer copy.’ ‘No, that won’t do,’ said the first policeman. ‘Whenever there is a crime, it must be investigated…’ 

Before I started rereading The Trial it was my intention to compose one of my pastiche reviews for it. My thought was that the above situation, i.e. being harangued by policemen who want to investigate a crime that you yourself don’t want them to investigate, a crime that you doubt has even been committed, was suitably absurd and Kafkaesque [I hate that word!]. To some extent I mourn the loss of that review; it would have been fun to write. The reason that I didn’t continue any further than the opening paragraph is that I found, to my surprise, so much to say about the book. I tend to compose those pastiche reviews when I am dealing with something that either didn’t inspire me to think too much or that has been poured over and analysed to the point that it becomes impossible to say anything new or even interesting about it. Now, I don’t claim that my take on The Trial is completely original, but I certainly found that it wasn’t the book I remembered it being, that the most commonly discussed aspects are underpinned by, I would argue, more compelling themes that commentators often ignore or do not give sufficient weight to.

To fully engage with, or even enjoy, The Trial one has to primarily concern oneself with ideas, because Kafka was not, I think it is fair to say, a master of plot or characterisation. Both of Kafka’s novels, although obviously unfinished, meander shamelessly, they proceed with apparent aimlessness; one might even call them repetitive and largely uneventful. Furthermore, Josef K. is not complex, or certainly not in the way that, say, Tolstoy’s creations are; nor is he is believable [whatever that means]. He has moods, of course, but they are all of one type; his emotional range is limited; and what he does feel tends to be negative. For example, he could be said to exhibit exasperation, despair, frustration, anger, confusion and so on. For me, Josef K. as a man, as a character, is really only interesting in relation to another of Kafka’s creations, K. from The Castle, who, on the surface, he appears to closely resemble.

In The Trial Josef K. is caught up in a situation beyond his control; he has, specifically, been arrested, and so it is logical, understandable, that he would want to find out why and to attempt to clear his name. He is, in this way, a relatable figure, because he does what most of us would do. Moreover, he is, despite some less than admirable qualities, sympathetic because, unless one is of the opinion that he has committed a crime, which would put you in a minority, the situation he finds himself in is not his fault. In fact, one might even call him heroic, in that he seeks, and fights for, an explanation or, if you prefer, justice; he also vows to improve or even destroy the system that he believes is persecuting him. This is not at all like what happens in The Castle. In that book, K. is under the impression that he has been summoned to a town in order to work as a land surveyor; yet when he gets there he finds that the locals do not want a land surveyor, and that they would rather he leave as soon as possible. However, K. refuses, even though his experience of the town and its inhabitants galls him. There is nothing sympathetic about K. because he does, unlike Josef K., have the option to free himself from the situation that oppresses him. That he doesn’t, that he stays out of stubbornness, out of sheer pig-headedness, that he will not do what is actually in his own best interests, is what, for me, means that The Castle is a much more depressing take on humanity.

“One must lie low, no matter how much it went against the grain, and try to understand that this great organization remained, so to speak, in a state of delicate balance, and that if someone took it upon himself to alter the dispositions of things around him, he ran the risk of losing his footing and falling to destruction, while the organization would simply right itself by some compensating reaction in another part of its machinery – since everything interlocked – and remain unchanged, unless, indeed, which was very probable, it became still more rigid, more vigilant, severer, and more ruthless.”

The Trial Is often, or most popularly, described as a novel about the insane nature of bureaucracy; and there is certainly evidence in the text to back that up. At the most basic level, Josef K. finds himself entangled in an absurd, confusing system, involving interviews and appointments, petitions and pleas. No matter how much he attempts to progress, or further his case, he is unable to do so. Of course, almost everyone can relate to this. For example, I once had a job, and part of this job was what we called ‘customer-facing’ i.e. you saw people who dropped in with queries. However, the customer-facing staff could not actually resolve queries; oh no, we could listen to them, we could make note of them, but we had to refer, via email, all queries to the appropriate section of the business, which was not, of course, even located in the same city. The customers themselves, we were often forced to confess, could not directly speak to the people trained, and expected, to resolve their queries. They – the customers – simply had to take it on trust that their query would be investigated and dealt with appropriately. This more-or-less universal experience does, I think, go some way to accounting for Kafka’s appeal. However, I would argue that it is important, in terms of understanding The Trial, to consider what is at the heart of people’s frustrations regarding bureaucracy. For me, it is about being unable to make a human connection. Of course, it is sometimes the case that people are literally interacting with a machine [some kind of automated service], but, even when one is able to speak with a human being, that human being, with few exceptions, hides behind impersonal regulations and procedures. In this way, bureaucracy is always cold and inhuman. No matter how much you plead, or argue your position, the bureaucrat will stare you down and repeat their mantra: ‘you must go through the proper channels.’

So while I accept that The Trial is, to some extent, about bureaucracy, I think that it is only one facet of the novel’s broader concerns about the difficulty of human interaction and our [often futile] attempts to make a connection with other people. There are abundant clues to this throughout the text, for example, when K. offers his hand to the supervisor, at the very beginning of the book, it is ignored. In his position of power, K has ceased to be a contemporary or an equal. A desire for human contact is also responsible for K. waiting for Fraülein Bürstner and for him impulsively kissing her. His relationship, if you can call it that, with Bürstner is particularly humiliating. When K. wants to see her again, after the impulsive kiss, he sends her notes or letters, which she ignores; she, on the other hand, dispatches the lame Fraülein Montag to speak to K. in her stead, which makes him exceedingly uneasy. It’s the kind of horribly uncomfortable moment most of us have experienced at one time or another, when someone you like or are attracted to, someone who you have reached out to, rejects you, feels compelled to let you know, through an intermediary no less, that they are not interested. Moreover, the awkwardness is on both sides: from Bürstner, who doesn’t want to speak to K., and from K., who is being given the brush-off.

“Whether she was to blame now was not clear. K. could only see that a man had drawn her into a corner by the door and was pressing her against his body. But it was not she who was shrieking but the man.”

As with bureaucracy, a lot is made of the role of women in The Trial, and rightly so, because there is something disconcerting about the way that they are presented. They are, almost without exception, sexualised to the point at which one might consider them loose women or even prostitutes. For instance, when K. visits the courts he meets a married woman who aggressively makes a play for him and asks that he take her away. Crucially, K., although initially resistant, begins to feel tempted, and it is then that she is picked up [literally] by another man and whisked away. When K. tries to intervene and plead his case, the woman rejects him. Yet, while this might say something about the way that Kafka himself saw women, it does, once again, feed into, is simply another example of, what I believe were the writer’s more general preoccupations. People focus specifically on the women because of what we know about Kafka’s personal life, and because it is often the way that scholars will want to bring a kind of gender analysis to novels, but one should not overlook that it is the case that all of the human interaction in the novel is awkward, strained, and painful. Consider the scene at the court’s offices, when K. approaches a man and asks him what he is there for. The man finds himself speechless, due to either shame or shyness, and when K. touches him he actually starts to scream. This is, in one sense, very amusing, but it is, for me, also immensely sad.

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[Fenced in. One of Franz Kafka’s own illustrations]

I mentioned humour just now, and it has become popular [even perhaps a cliché] to describe Kafka’s work as incredibly funny, which, it strikes me, is an opinion that has, in classic contrarian fashion, emerged only to contradict the previously commonly held opinion that it is entirely bleak and foreboding. The truth, as is often the case, is actually somewhere between the two extremes. There are undeniably comedic passages, situations, and lines, such as when K. visits the courthouse, which turns out to be some kind of high-rise block of flats, and, afraid of giving himself away, goes knocking on doors asking for the joiner Lanz. This is amusing in numerous ways; first of all, because one would expect the courthouse to be located in an impressive, official building, not what is seemingly a cramped and dirty place full of tenants [the kids running around the corridors is a nice touch]; secondly, because when K. asks about Lanz some of the inhabitants of the building take the request very seriously and start directing him and trying to help him find the non-existent joiner. It is the jolting absurdity that provides the comedy and the sense that K. is surrounded by fools and foolishness. However, in spite of all that, I must say that I think that the humour is overstated these days, and that the book, more than anything, is unsettling and nightmarish. The word ‘nightmarish’ gets thrown around a lot when discussing literature and art and film, and it often denotes nothing more than something that is grotesque. In my opinion, The Trial more closely resembles real nightmares, or mine anyway, which often involve odd and abrupt temporal shifts [minutes for K. are sometimes hours for others], the inversion of space [things that you expect to be large are small, and vice versa], and people behaving in incomprehensible ways or entering scenes in an inexplicable or eerie manner [more than one person literally emerges out of the shadows]. Many, many things are called Kafkaesque, but if anything genuinely deserves that tag it would be the films of David Lynch, and you don’t find those in the comedy section on Netflix.

To conclude, I have tried, in this review, to give some idea of what I found impressive and enjoyable and engaging about The Trial, a book that is, for me, one of world literature’s most imposing masterpieces. I have also tried to explore what I think are the significant themes. However, the great genius of the work is that one could see almost anything in it. Indeed, Jorge Luis Borges once wrote something about how great literature actually becomes greater with age, that, as time passes, it gains meaning, becomes more, not less, relevant. This is certainly the case with all of Kafka’s work, and The Trial in particular. Think about the basic premise again: a man arrested for a crime he knows nothing about, who, when he seeks an explanation, is met with illogical resistance and endless bureaucracy. The similarities between this situation and accounts of what happened to large numbers of citizens in Stalin’s Russia, and other Communist countries, is uncanny. Or what about the Jewish experience in Nazi Germany, where people found themselves suddenly relieved of their basic rights, where official bodies could, and did, turn lives upside down [and take them away, of course] without any wrong-doing on their part? It is no surprise, in this regard, that there are acclaimed Russian authors who lived and worked under Stalin, and Jewish writers affected by the Holocaust, that have been heavily influenced by Prague’s finest. Yet for all his influence, for all the talented writers that have stepped in the marks left by his shoes as he blazed his trail, Franz Kafka – the originator – remains unsurpassed.

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4 comments

    1. Thanks! I was torn because I really fancied doing that with this book, but it would have been indulgent and no one would have read it, as I couldn’t have done it under 4000 words. This ended up being 2500 without all that stuff.

    1. Ha, I’m glad it is not just me who feels compelled to do this sort of thing. It was really tempting, but it’s perhaps a good thing I didn’t now I see you pulled it off before me.

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