I’ve been delaying writing about Kafka’s The Trial in hopes that I would be able to sort it all together and come up with something brilliant to say about it. Alas, brilliance never arrived and I’m at the point where if I don’t say something about it now, I won’t remember enough of the details to write anything coherent about it.
In case you don’t know the story, Josef K. wakes up one morning and is arrested for he knows not what. The police who arrest him don’t know what the charges are either. They question him for awhile and then he is allowed to go to work. However, he is supposed to appear in court, not for a trial, but for a hearing. Basically, K. throughout the whole book is left “free” to go about his regular life and business. But it turns out members of the court are everywhere, not the public court mind you where they try common criminals, but a court that exists in attics and apartment rooms, and to whom almost everyone K. meets is affiliated in one way or other. So one gets this sense that K. is always being watched, his simplest actions and words continually evaluated, and added to the court record for the case against him. We never find out what crime he committed. K. never finds out what crime he committed either but insists he is not guilty of whatever it might be.
K. appears at his hearing and makes a big speech. In it he declares that the court’s
purpose is to arrest innocent people and wage pointless prosecutions against them which, as in my case, lead to no result. How are we to avoid those in office becoming deeply corrupt when everything is devoid of meaning? That is impossible, not even the highest judge would be able to achieve that for himself.
The phrase, “when everything is devoid of meaning” seems to sum up the book. K.’s battle against the court is a battle against meaninglessness. At first he stands tall and vows to fight it. He is full of energy and is driven by his anger at being accused and all the attendant frustrations and confusions the sometime-in-the-future trial invokes. But as time goes by K. begins to get worn down. His Uncle drags him to a friend who is also a lawyer who is engaged to work on his case. But to K. it seems that the lawyer does nothing and he eventually fires him and tries to handle his case himself. However, he has to file papers with the court but since he doesn’t know what the charges are against him he doesn’t know what he should say in the papers. He paralyzed and unable to write as he tries
to remember every tiny action and event from the whole of his life, looking at them from all sides and checking and reconsidering them.
Finally, from a painter to the court, he learns that there is no way he will ever be free of the court. A complete acquittal is impossible and K. can look forward to spending the rest of his life dealing with the court in one way or another until they finally decide to deliver a verdict.
K. begins to come unraveled. He used to be a rising star at the bank where he works, in line to be assistant director, but now because he has become preoccupied with his trial his work is suffering and his job is in danger. He is given a warning by a friendly priest that things are not going well for him in the court. The priest tells K. a parable about a man who sits waiting outside a door his entire life for the chance to access the law. K. fails to find the meaning in it and argues the logic of it with the priest who tells him,
“you don’t need to accept everything as true, you only have to accept it as necessary.” “Depressing view,” said K. “The lie made into the rule of the world.”
Eventually a verdict is handed down and K., exhausted, accepts his fate and goes willingly to receive it. It had echoes for me of Orwell’s 1984 (or maybe it is more correct to say Orwell has echoes of Kafka) and how, in the end, Winston loves Big Brother. It gave me chills and left me with a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.
The Trial is an unfinished novel. Chapter eight was not completed before Kafka died and the manuscript was among the many papers Kafka’s friend Max Brod was supposed to destroy at Kafka’s request but didn’t. I don’t know why Kafka wanted his papers destroyed but I am glad Brod didn’t comply with his wishes. There is now a dispute winding its way through various courts over the papers of both Kafka and Brod and who owns them, Israel or the Hoffe sisters, heirs to Brod’s estate. The irony of the trial over Kafka’s papers has not been lost on the news agencies. No matter how you look at it, Kafka and Brod scholars and readers are in for a long wait before the contents of the papers are accessible.