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Sunday, February 23, 2014

Was it the trial that cast him about so, and kept him from distinguishing his friends from his enemies?

The Trial by Franz Kafka

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
The Trial is an introspective journey that delves into the depths of bureaucracy and totalitarianism, chronicling the capricious and arbitrary arrest and trial of Josef K., a German bank officer. Though he is placed under arrest, Josef K. is able to continue living his life, and maintains his job at the bank while attempting to sift through the many layers of the quagmire that is his court case. He enlists the aid of a lawyer, assembles a network of supporters, and does his best to make sense of the absurd proceedings. His attempts are in vain in the end, however, and rather than being placed in jail, Josef K. is taken to a quarry at night by guards and stabbed in the heart.  Josef K. never discovers the reason behind his trial, and we are left wondering at the seeming senselessness of it all.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

I found this to be a very strange read. I haven't read any other Kafka, so I don't have anything to compare it to. The psychological analysis of it reminded me of Russian lit, particularly Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, which is a genre I respect, but can't say I really enjoy.

Rather than comment at random on this one, I've chosen to present a microcosm of the trial of Josef K. Heads up, if you're dead set on reading it, you might want to wait to read this blog - the whole thing is sort of a spoiler. Sorry!

- It Begins. 
"What sort of men were they? What office did they represent? Who dared assault him in his own lodgings? He'd always tended to take things lightly, to believe the worst only when it arrived, making no provision for the future, even when things looked bad." The arrest is bizarre, not only because it seems to have no driving force behind it, but also because Josef K. is not led off to prison or taken away to be interrogated. Rather, he resumes his life in a mostly normal fashion, which makes the arrest all the more jarring.

- My social security number? Ah, yes. It's 1. 2. 3. A. B... I knew you were too good to be true! You're an alien! No. We come from France!
Josef K. looks for some form of ID to show the guards who come to arrest him, and at first all he can find is his bicycle license. I thought this was adorable, and it also made me wonder why we don't have bicycle licenses now if we used to in the past. Perhaps you still have to get a bicycle license in some countries? I'll have to look into it.

- Josef K.'s response to being arrested.
"At the same time he asked himself from his own perspective what possible reason he could have for killing himself. Because those two were sitting next door and had taken away his breakfast? Committing suicide would be so irrational that even had he wished to, the irrationality of the act would have prevented him." The absurdity of the arrest is juxtaposed with the seeming severity of the event. When Josef K. considers the prospect of suicide as an escape, it doesn't seem like a proportionate response. Had he known the way the trial would unfold, however, Josef K. might have felt differently. (NB: Not condoning suicide, obvi, just pointing out the disproportionality of it in the beginning vs. his violent end.)

- The guards, to Josef, on wearing his pajamas upon his arrest:
"If you assault me in bed, you can hardly expect to find me in formal attire." The weirdest part of this book was that it was highly humorous in certain moments. I suppose it was to give some levity to things, but also to point out the ridiculous quality to some of the events. In any case, this was one of my favorite lines. 

- Don't worry - this isn't that kind of an arrest.
"Oh, I see," said the inspector. "You've misunderstood me; you're under arrest, certainly, but that's not meant to keep you from carrying on your profession. Nor are you to be hindered in the course of your ordinary life." I guess Josef K.'s arrest isn't so different from the house arrest a current CFO might be placed under for a business trial, but in that case, the trial would take a back burner, at least in some respect, and the CFO would continue to go about his life. Here, Josef K. is expected to go about his life, but it is anything but normal, which makes his daily routine rather tortured in the end.

- Excuse me, but do you know a carpenter named Lanz?
When Josef K. first tries to attend his court proceedings on a weekend, he feels out of place in the apartment building, so he makes up a carpenter named Lanz and starts knocking on doors to see if anyone knows him. 
"Several people believed K. badly needed to find the carpenter Lanz, thought long and hard, recalled a carpenter, but not one named Lanz, remembered a name that bore some faint similarity to Lanz, asked their neighbors, or accompanied K. to some far distant door, where they fancied such a man might possibly be subletting an apartment, or where there was someone who could provide him with better information than they could." The most absurd part is that when Josef K. knocks on the last door, the person who answers says, "Right this way", and it turns out to be the court. 

- It's only real if I think it's real.
"They are only proceedings if I recognize them as such." I know, right? Soooo meta.

- Sign for APPLAUSE.
Josef K, at part of his trial: "The examining magistrate here beside me has just given one of you a secret signal. So there are those among you who are being directed from up here. I don't know if the signal is meant to elicit hisses or applause, and I deliberately waive my opportunity to learn what the signal means by having revealed the matter prematurely. It's a matter of complete indifference to me, and I publicly authorize His Honor the examining magistrate to command his paid employees below out loud, rather than by secret signals, and to say something like: 'Now hiss' and the next time: 'Now clap.'" Again, there's a duality to this moment - it's simultaneously amusing and deeply disturbing in revealing the inner workings of the court.

- B is for Bureaucracy.
The nebulous quality of bureaucracy is in fine form in this novel. Here's a snippet:
"The proceedings in the courts of law are generally a mystery to the lower officials as well; therefore they can almost never follow the progress of the cases they are working on throughout their course; the case enters their field of vision, often they know not whence, and continues on, they know not where."

 It reminded me of this scene from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy:
Arthur's house is about to get knocked down to build a bypass. When Arthur complains that he had no idea it was happening, the contractor responds with the following:
"But the plans were on display..."
"On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them."
"That's the display department."
"With a flashlight."
"Ah, well, the lights had probably gone."
"So had the stairs."
"But look, you found the notice, didn't you?"
"Yes, yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying 'Beware of the Leopard.'"

- Trials, and a bit wiv a painter named Titorelli.
One of the many people Josef K. seeks out to consult on his case is a bizarre court painter named Titorelli. Titorelli explains the possible outcomes of Josef's trial as follows:

"There are three possibilities: actual acquittal, apparent acquittal, and protraction."

Door #1:
Actual acquittal - Titorelli cannot help with this one. It is very rare, and relies on factors outside his control. Tant pis!

Door #2:
Apparent acquittal - "It means the charge against you is dropped for the moment but continues to hover over you, and can be reinstated the moment an order comes from above. The files remain in circulation; following the law court's normal routine they are passed on to the higher courts, come back to the lower ones, swinging back and forth with larger or smaller oscillations, longer or shorter interruptions. These paths are unpredictable. Externally it may sometimes appear that everything has been long since forgotten, the file has been lost, and the acquittal is absolute... No file is ever lost, and the court never forgets." I know, sounds pretty Great, right? 

Aand, Door #3:
Protraction - "Protraction is when the trial is constantly kept at the lowest stage. This doesn't require the same effort it takes to secure an apparent acquittal, but it does require a much higher level of vigilance. You can't let the trial out of your sight; you have to visit the relevant judge at regular intervals, and any extra chance you get as well, and try to keep him as well disposed as possible in all ways; if you don't know the judge personally, you have to try to influence him through judges you do know, although you still don't dare dispense with the direct conferences. If nothing is omitted in this respect, you can be sufficiently assured that the trial will never progress beyond its initial stage. The trial doesn't end of course, but the defendant is almost as safe from a conviction as he would be a free man." Hrm... Is this really my best option? Why does this not seem like a good thing?

- Fin.
In the end, the conclusion of Josef K.'s trial is as arbitrary as the beginning. 

A priest, to Josef K: "The judgment isn't simply delivered at some point; the proceedings gradually merge into the judgment."

Josef K., on the guards who come to take him away: 
  • "He was nauseated by the cleanliness of their faces."
  • "Why did they send you of all people?"
  • "There would be nothing heroic in resistance."
  • "Moonlight lay everywhere [in the quarry] with the naturalness and serenity no other light is granted."
Josef K., on his inability to take his own life:
"He could not rise entirely to the occasion, he could not relieve the authorities of all their work; the responsibility for this final failure lay with whoever had denied him the remnant of strength necessary to do so."

One last flicker of hope before the climax:
"Like a light flicking on, the casements of a window flew open, a human figure, faint and insubstantial at that distance and height, leaned far out abruptly, and stretched both arms out even further. Who was it? A friend? A good person? Someone who cared? Someone who wanted to help? Was it just one person? Was it everyone? Was there still help?"

Josef, to himself, after the knife has been plunged in his heart:
"Where was the judge he'd never seen? Where was the high court he'd never reached?"

I know, rather a dark way to spend this beauteous Sunday. No more Kafka now, I mean it. Anybody wanna peanut? Onwards to Anne of Yellow Canopies and Canadians, hey? Vous pouvez me joindre, si vous en voulez.

1 comment:

  1. Even if you read all of the Annes, they will at least be down-to-earth, as Kafka is so not. Kudos to you for trying to make sense of the senseless, and Pollyanna-like, for finding something good.