Franz Kafka (3 July 1883 – 3 June 1924) is an author who needs little introduction. To read his work is to enter a murky labyrinth of alienation and paranoia, in which man is left at the tender mercies of an unknowable universe bent on his destruction. As Kafka himself once said, “in the struggle of man versus the universe, bet on the universe.” This absurd, nightmarish quality is so synonymous with Kafka that the term “Kafkaesque” has been coined to describe it. But what is it that makes the writings of this troubled author, who died at the age of forty and who demanded that all his manuscripts be burned upon his death, continue to resonate almost a century after his passing?
I think the answer might lie not in the alien and otherworldly nature of Kafka, but rather in the elements we see reflected all too often in the drab and mundane trappings of our own daily lives. Anyone unlucky enough to spend day after day in a cubicle, filing pointless paperwork, will understand the malicious, coldly inhuman, yet comically nonsensical bureaucracy reflected in works like “The Castle” and “The Trial.” The latter is the work Kafka is probably best known for, and despite its unfinished state, could arguably be considered his masterpiece. All the classic “Kafkaesque” elements are here: the convoluted bureaucracy, the existential dread, the sense of being trapped in a nightmare one is powerless to escape.
“Someone must have been telling lies about Josef K.,” the novel begins, in one of literature’s most famous opening lines. “He knew he had done nothing wrong but, one morning, he was arrested.” Thus the tone is set for this dream-like fable, in which a thirty-year-old bank clerk embarks on a futile quest not only to prove his innocence, but to unravel the machinations of a system built to confound understanding. There is a timelessness to the story, yet it also seems far ahead of its own time in capturing the darkness of modern life, an insidious feeling of unease and insecurity that all of us have likely experienced at one point or another. Prague was Kafka’s native city, but reading The Trial reminds me of living in New York City, a loud, cold, and dirty metropolis, where passersby would not think twice in stepping over your dead body. Each day the world and the experience of living in it seems to become more and more that way for millions of Joseph K.’s. The skyscrapers grow taller and more imposing, like prison walls fencing us in, while man himself is reduced to an insignificant speck. Is that what Kafka experienced himself? Is that the world he was afraid of?
So much has already been written about The Trial since its posthumous publication in 1925. It can be read as a foreshadowing of the authoritarian regimes that would imperil civilization not long after Kafka’s death, or a commentary on the vain struggle to make sense of a chaotic universe. Personally, what stands out to me the most about The Trial is the chilling, almost suffocating atmosphere it evokes. I’ve never encountered another novel that captures so perfectly and indelibly that indefinable “something” that can only be described as “dream logic.” This is reflected not so much through K.’s struggle against the absurd, but in his tacit acceptance of it, in the way he seems to find nothing especially noteworthy about a world in which which you can find yourself the subject of a public interrogation seemingly out of nowhere with the peanut gallery roaring or applauding at random, or where law offices are based in the attic of an obscure apartment complex:
“Were the court offices here, in the attic of this tenement, then?” K. wonders in one passage. “If that was how they were accommodated it did not attract much respect, and it was some comfort for the accused to realize how little money this court had at its disposal if it had to locate its offices in a place where the tenants of the building, who were themselves among the poorest of people, would throw their unneeded junk. On the other hand, it was possible that the officials had enough money but that they squandered it on themselves rather than use it for the court’s purposes.”
K.’s above-mentioned public interrogation in Chapter 2 is the sequence which I believe most perfectly captures the absurd and dreamlike quality of the narrative. When K. is given the opportunity to state his case, he poignantly speaks on behalf of everyone crushed by the grinding wheel of a bewildering and arbitrary universe:
“What has happened to me is not just an isolated case. If it were it would
not be of much importance as it’s not of much importance to me, but it is a symptom of proceedings which are carried out against many. It’s on behalf of them that I stand here
now, not for myself alone.”
Enforcing the dream-like (or nightmarish) atmosphere is the the inability to distinguish between the real and unreal, the sense that is what happening might simply be a projection of K.’s own subconscious fears and insecurities about his own worthlessness and insignificance:
“No,” said K., “I am the chief clerk in a large bank.” This reply was followed by laughter among the right hand faction down in the hall, it was so hearty that K. couldn’t stop himself joining in with it. The people supported themselves with their hands on their knees and shook as if suffering a serious attack of coughing.”
The Trial remains fascinating because like most dreams, it is a riddle that feels both symbolic and prophetic, yet defies easy interpretation. The outcome of The Trial is pretty much a foregone conclusion, but in this case, I think the journey is much more important. It would be easy to dismiss Kafka’s worldview as nothing more than hollow cynicism, but while there is undoubtedly bleakness, there is also a sense of defiance, of resistance, however futile, against a world that is either hostile or at the very least indifferent to our fate. Maybe the joke really is on Joseph K., and by extension all the rest of us in the end, but if the powers that be are laughing, the least we can do is laugh right back in their face.
Volumes have already been written about Kafka and his work by people much smarter than me, so I’ll just close by saying that for my money, the genius of this haunted Bohemian insurance agent isn’t in depicting some bizarre alternate dimension. It’s in pulling back the veil and showing us that this world is the one that’s truly “Kafkaesque.” But the funny thing about dreams is that you seldom realize that you’re in one, until you go flying off a cliff. So thank you, Mr. Kafka. Having a small reminder never hurts.