This is a difficult read. I bought The Essential Kafka a while ago and while reading The Trial decided it would be better split into several reads. My first impression was that I do not like Kafka. My feelings are very certain that he makes me uncomfortable as a reader. But that is a very powerful feeling and there are very complex feelings muddled up with my dislike. So because ‘there is something about Kafka’ (now isn’t that the title of a rom-com) that makes me want to understand why I feel this way I was compelled to research.
Because there is something about Kafka and I think he is worth working a little harder for.
The Trial is in many ways a nightmare to read. It is bewildering. There are no answers. Things are absurd, you are very powerless in this novel. It is claustrophobic and almost unbearable to read. I am sure there are many people that would put it down because this is not a fun ride – this book is out to physiologically ridicule you. It wants to make you uncomfortable. It wants to put you in a place where you are desperate and unhappy. Because that is the point of it.
So who was this so called person? Well, the Monument in German Literature was actually quite a complicated person. He was the unfortunate son of an abusive father. He grew up shy and bookish with an overwhelming sense of inadequacy. He was terribly afraid of his father and in his adult life he tried to write a letter to confront his father about his awful childhood that had left him feeling deformed. He suffered with his health. He was also so unsatisfied with his three major works, the Trial, the Castle and Amerika that he requested that they be destroyed after his death (but his friend published them instead).
Because of his work the term Kafkaesque has entered the vernacular, to describe circumstances that are characteristic or reminiscent of his oppressive and nightmarish fiction.
The Trial follows Josef K. a middle class, bachelor, management banker who wakes up one morning to find two men in his apartment telling him he is under arrest. Upon questioning them, they refuse to tell him his charges (they have also taken his breakfast hostage) even when he presents identification. One of the many absurdities in this novel is that K. is never actually told the charges nor are the nature of the judicial proceedings ever made clear to him. K. seems to never quite take it all seriously because of this.
Then K. tries to navigate bureaucracy, laws, and bewildering procedures trying to find what he has been charged with. But of course, nobody, not even his lawyer, has the answer to that. He goes into surreal buildings that all seem to be owned by the court. He has several long kissing sessions with various women (some of which throw themselves at him) and is told that he is an embarrassment to his family.
He accidentally walks in on two men being flogged. He accidentally has an encounter with an artist constantly swamped by children – who unsurprisingly work for the court and promises to help him. He mistreats his landlady and is generally an unsympathetic character who is abrasive, arrogant, and at the best of times a little clueless. He has a discussion with a Priest. Is picked up by two blundering men and is then executed by them “like a dog.”
It’s a bleak novel that leaves you with several unsavoury flavours which are: there are no answers, life is cruel and bewildering, and one is never in control of ones own destiny.
But this is also a novel that points to significant things about the legal system. In the Trial that system doesn’t serve justice, it’s soul function is to propitiate itself. The legal system is unstoppable even though K. is at liberty and allowed to carry on in his life and work, while his court proceedings are going on. He could run. He could set the courthouse on fire. He could go on a rampage and kill his way to the top to find answers. But he doesn’t.
I believe it is because the legal system is a living thing that has set it’s beady eye on K. and will have him guilty. He is almost being collared by an angry parent and K’s. certainty in his own innocence crumbles because said parent has sat him on the naughty step to think about what he has done, when he really has no idea.
How innocent K. is I guess is really up to the reader to decide, but within that discussion we open a couple of thought provoking doors that are really at the heart of the text. Through one door we can look at the novel as an intimate unravelling of K.’s mind, through another we question the subjective nature of innocence and morality and through another we question the totalitarian state K. is apparently part of.
I want to believe he is innocent and a victim of circumstance because I am essentially an optimist. But I don’t actually think it matters. One’s innocence is treated with a sort of apathy in the Trial as there are all sorts of people are watching you and making decisions about you based on rules you aren’t aware of. It seems the judgement of innocence is actually arbitrary by the end of the novel, and because of that justice itself is arbitrary.
The world defined in the Trial is one that is designed to make us feel powerless and is designed to reflect emotions that are otherwise unbearable. I think Kafka is one of the more thought provoking authors I have dived into and I am certain I will read more. But I am also aware I probably won’t like it, even if there is something about Kafka.