Novel * Franz Kafka * Bureaucratic Dread * 1925 (unfinished)
Well that was weird. This probably shouldn’t come as any surprise, it’s Kafka, weird is what he does. Of course, summing up the work of this peculiar genius in a single word does a gross disservice to what is actually going on here. The world of Joseph K, our continually put-upon hero, is dark and uncertain. This story takes place of the world, but not in the world. The Trial stands apart from reality while reflecting the surreal quality of living in modernity. The subtlety and deftness with which Kafka manages this balance is remarkable, and he uses scenes of stark realism to create an atmosphere of surreal dread. Kafkaesque as an adjective is almost certainly overused, and as such its use glosses over what makes the works of the man himself so important. To use the word to consider things that are simply strange or surreal cheapens Kafka’s accomplishments in literature. Yes, there is something certainly off-kilter in The Trial. Everything is familiar, but nothing hangs together quite right, and it is this quality that illuminates the underlying dread of life in a modern nation-state.
So yes, this biz gets heavy almost right away, and this directly contrasts with the story itself, which is by turns absurd and frustrating. As the title implies, the narrative follows Joseph K as he is arrested, charged, and put on trial. The absurd part kicks in immediately, since being “arrested” means almost nothing in a practical sense. K is allowed to return to work the same day, and nobody involved seems to know anything in particular about the charge itself. In fact, the entire novel plays out in this way. K is never informed of his charges, never learns anything concrete about the Court itself, and while he is given lesson after lesson about how badly he is defending his case, K learns precisely nothing about the nature of the trial itself. Meanwhile, the fact that the novel is unfinished only serves to add the overall confusion of the story. Events seem to jump around, and the ending is not only abrupt, but seemingly at odds to what has come before it. Again, this all makes a kind of fractured sense, because the narrative itself isn’t particularly important. K’s interactions with the various odd and upsetting characters are what make the novel significant.
It is difficult to get a hard grasp of Kafka’s writings, for reasons outlined above, but I think a good way into the text is to take a brief look at some of Joseph K’s interactions with the various people he crosses paths with. Obviously I’m not intending to make an exhaustive analysis here – there is an inexhaustible amount of secondary academic research on this work and Kafka himself, so if that’s what you’re into, knock yourself out. However, in the interest of thinking about the novel in a not-entirely-superficial way, let’s take a look at some of these weirdos.
The novel begins with Joseph K being “arrested” in his house as he awakens. I use the quote there because what follows is less of an arrest and more of an exercise in absurdity. As he leaves his bedroom and enters the kitchen of his boarding house, he is introduced to two warders, who inform K of his arrest. K is obviously confused at this situation, since he has done nothing illegal. Yet his wardens insist that he is arrested, and no, they don’t know why. They seem a trifle upset that K would even ask. This is a situation that will repeat itself over and over again throughout the novel, but these two dum-dum wardens are our first introduction to the absurdity of the entire affair. These wardens are clearly not very bright, rather corrupt, and entirely useless. This point is driven home later in the story when K comes across them again while they are being punished for being dumb, corrupt, and useless. What compounds the absurdity of these two clowns is K’s reaction. He points out their faults, and asks pretty much every question that the reader would have at this point. However, the key to the whole mess, what turns an ordinary action in an ordinary room in an ordinary world into something Kafkaesque, is K’s willingness to accept the situation. At no point do the wardens present a physical threat. They have no legitimacy whatsoever in and of themselves. Nor does the arrival of the Inspector grant them any. If anything, their superior is even worse as he adds no information worth noting and essentially tells K to go on with his life as if nothing has happened, but only to remember that he’s “arrested.” The arrival of arresting officers should be a show of the repressive power of the state, but they are in fact empty of the threat of authority. And yet despite all this, they still manage to plant doubt in K, and the reader’s, mind about the nature of the world.
The other character who illuminates the nature of The Trial best is Herr Huld, the lawyer (and then I’m going to call it, because as I’ve mentioned one could write entire books about this, and have). After Joseph K attends his first interrogation solo, in a surreal scene which takes place in an oppressive, claustrophobic atmosphere, K is set upon by his uncle, who insists that he enlist the aid of an attorney. Huld is introduced as a sick man who specializes in cases like K’s (people being prosecuted for their overwhelming sense of existential dread, I suppose). He is by turns incompetent and expository, by which I mean he explains a good many things without explaining anything at all. That, of course, rather explains the entire novel, and serves as another window into this world gone wrong. It is clear from our first introduction to Huld that he’s going to be useless. After all, how can one defend against something that may or may not exist? K comes to the same conclusion right away as it is made clear by the lawyer and K’s uncle that K’s presence isn’t really required. The immediate contradiction that follows as presented by K’s uncle (you ruined everything by leaving when you weren’t wanted, but everything is probably fine, but you’re terrible and doomed) is frustrating to both K and the reader, and when K later attempts to dismiss the lawyer it is likely seen as good sense. The novel presents the bureaucratic machine as vast, omnipresent, and unknowable. The only way to penetrate it is to become a part of it, which is the method the lawyer uses to maintain his livelihood. There’s no way to win a case that may or may not exist in the first place, but if you don’t play along you may as well not exist. The bureaucracy is presented as a perpetual motion machine, once it is in motion there is no way to stop it.
Naturally, this is all very frustrating to K and the reader. Everyone K interacts with talks in circles and repeatedly condescends to him and praises him, often in the same sentence. Further, as mentioned above, there is no physical reason why K should be compelled to have any dealings with the Court and its weird bureaucracy in the first place. It’s this lack of repressive force throughout the novel which makes the ending so abrupt and bizarre. Why would K allow these two clown-shoes to murder him? Where do they even come from, and where was the turning point? We’re told over and over again that K’s case is just beginning, and are shown sad old fools whose cases are years old. One moment K is hanging out, hooking up with the ladies and trying to one-up his lame boss, and the next moment he has a knife in the heart. I suspect this mostly has to do with the novel being a bit of an unfinished mess. Of course, the incomplete nature of Kafka’s work doesn’t diminish what is here. Look, I completely understand that I haven’t even glanced at the surface here, and that’s fine. Like the novel itself, I’ve asked more questions than I’ve even tried to answer, but that’s okay too. In this case, the questions are more important than the answers.