We Need To Talk About Kafka

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“I would attempt a Foucauldian reading of The Trial, but it’s too Kafkaesque for my liking. Besides, I always thought that a Freudian interpretation really helps with Kafka. Sometimes his writing has Dickensian echoes…”

These are the most pretentious phrases you will read today, you are free to use them. I’ve already written on Foucault, I will soon write on Dickens, Freud I will try to avoid, and, you guessed it, this is me writing on Franz Kafka. It feels as if I’ve been writing essays on Kafka my whole life. The Trial is perhaps his most famous work, along with The Castle and The Metamorphosis. I had a very bad reading experience with The Castle: the Greek translation was awful, making Kafka’s already disorienting writing style even more incomprehensible. Rereading the book in English, however, made me realize that, yes, Kafka’s style is still confusing, but at least I can make some sense out of it (although I’m pretty sure that you’re not supposed to understand what The Castle is about…). The Metamorphosis deals with the sudden realization that the protagonist of the story has transformed into an insect. The prose is experimental and the term “daddy issues” intensifies more and more with every sentence.

Let’s focus on The Trial. Written in 1915, The Trial was never completed and only got published after Kafka’s death, in 1925. The Trial is the story of Josef K., a bank official who one morning gets arrested completely out of the blue. Ironically, the day of his arrest also happens to be the day of his thirtieth birthday. His arrest triggers a series of events that all lead to his death, exactly one year after the opening scene of the book. What happens in-between is K’s struggle to try and find his way through a confusing and labyrinth-like legal system. In the end, all is in vain as he dies, completely defeated and broken down by the system. The Trial is a bitter parody of the complexity of the legal system, but it also examines the notion of human freedom.

When I first read The Trial, almost ten years ago, I was left with the unpleasant idea of utter helplessness. Kafka describes a world where the individual is always undermined by an authority, not entirely out of spite or a personal vendetta, but just because that’s how things are supposed to be. The Trial is a depressing story that leaves the reader breathless and also kind of numb. Josef K. starts as an ambitious man, entirely career oriented, willing to fight for his freedom. The change he undergoes is disheartening: he becomes an empty shell and passively walks to his death, completely aware of his inability to escape. The trial never takes place, but it feels as if Josef K. goes through a trial every single day. The real trial is how well he manages to handle the nameless and undefined accusation that haunts his life.

What is he accused of? Josef K. never finds out, the reader never finds out. Kafka doesn’t make it easy for us. Throughout the book he never gives us the faintest hint of Josef’s crime. We can only speculate. Perhaps his crime is related to his job. Maybe he couldn’t control his violent tendencies and assaulted a woman (we know that he is capable of losing control as he assaulted Fraulein Burstner). It is possible that his crime is a kind of original sin that he unknowingly carries in him. Is there even a crime? The crime doesn’t matter though. What matters the most is how well he operates under pressure. His fight is a fight against a corrupt and shadowy authority that threatens his freedom and his life.

There is a recurring theme in Kafka’s fiction: the individual struggle against a powerful and impenetrable system. In The Trial that organization is the faceless court, in The Castle it’s the castle itself. Kafka’s bureaucracy is the stuff of nightmares (or as we call it in Greece, the public sector). Kafka toys with the fundamental ideas of truth and justice. Normally, a trial aims to reveal the truth, assess that truth, and then punish accordingly. The trial is supposed to be enlightening and just, here however, a trial never takes place. Josef K. is judged by his actions while he awaits his trial. He tries to play by the rules of the legal system, but fails to find any hope. He tries to sneak his way into forgiveness, but fails again. The feeling the reader gets is that Josef K. was never supposed to make it out of his trial alive. Everything concerning his case is so purposefully vague. For instance, he is never told when exactly to attend his hearing. The real trial happens outside the court room. Ironically enough, there is no court room scene, but Josef K. goes through a mental trial from the moment he was first accused.  In a way, he condemns himself.

The meaning of The Trial is hard to define. The first reaction The Trial causes is to stay in a dark room and wait for them to come and get you (and by them, I mean the system and we’re in Foucault’s territory again and I’m feeling paranoid…). Kafka leaves no room for any positivity. He pretty much rationalizes the idea that every human being is tortured and haunted by default and if by a miracle the torture and haunting isn’t internal, then an outside agent (for instance, the court) will make sure to dramatically damage the individual. Kafka is not a pleasant guy.

Kafka uses all the tools Modernism has to offer, only to turn them against Modernism itself. I try to imagine The Trial as a Victorian novel and it stops being that absurd and nihilistic. In a Victorian setting, Josef’s struggle against the system could be viewed as a heroic one-man journey to personal triumph and, of course, love (there needs to be a romantic sub-plot in a Victorian novel). In a Modern setting, however, The Trial can only be read as the swan song of human progress, rationality and hope. Kafka wrote The Trial in 1915, World War I was already happening and the future seemed nothing but dim. Kafka describes a world of nightmare where the individual is nameless, just another case to ignore and abuse. The violence of The Trial isn’t physical, but psychological. Kafka’s view of the world is horribly depressing, so go and hug everything you hold dear. Basically, Kafka is like Game of Thrones, but without the nudity and the dragons.

Does it have a happy ending? No, there is no such thing as a happy ending in Kafka’s work. In a sense, there is no such thing as a happy ending in general! WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!

Is it worth your time? Let me clear something out, dear reader: you should not read Kafka, if you want to have a nice time. You should not expect to have a nice time. You decide to read Kafka because you want to ponder over the inevitably tragic human condition, gasp at the horrible coincidences that prove how helpless one can be against an organized system of power, and also quietly murmur “too many daddy issues Franz. TOO. MANY. DADDY. ISSUES”. Nevertheless, Kafka is a very important part of Modernism and he shouldn’t be ignored. Read Kafka, but please remember that life can be beautiful.

Can we get proper fan fiction out of it? If any of you are willing to dedicate precious time and actually write a fan fic out of The Trial, you are really disturbed individuals, can I take you out for dinner?

Dinosaurs, vampires or zombies? George Orwell. Think of the possibilities!

Dream cast in a movie? James D’Arcy as Josef K. Also, Peter Capaldi. Peter Capaldi as The Doctor. It doesn’t make any sense, I just wanted to mention how much I love Peter Capaldi as The Doctor.

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