The Trial (Part 2)

I finally completed Kafka's "The Trial" today. What an amazing piece of writing. A novel so complex, so metaphorical and symbolic that it would take one forever to construe every meaning that one could derive from the theme, plot, characters, allusions and the ambiance. Kafka's trial is probably many things to many people and there are obvious invocations of the text in these days of arrests of terror suspects without trial. The irony here of course is that the modern day suspects are accused of terrorism and want a trial and Kafka's protagonist, Joseph K. is on trial but is never accused. And yet they are essentially the same things.

However, what makes The Trial so special is that it isn't really about the legal system specifically. It can be applied to any massive bureaucracy, any big company, any big project, any big team or anywhere really where the individual is secondary to due process. If you've ever felt claustrophobic facing such a body, you would identify with the The Trial immediately and completely.

Many things come to mind thinking about the amazing story. It is clear that this is not a simple story. One can't expect that from the man who wrote "Metamorphosis", one of the towering, complex works of fiction in modern literature. No. Kafka's world is overly complex and deeply dark. He wrote in the beginning of the 19th century and this book was written between the two wars and published only after his death. Kafka was a German Jew and some believe most of his writing was about the Jewish experience. It is clear that Kafka has probably left this manuscript incomplete. He was clearly on a roll but could not tell the whole story. He had written the end first so one isn't left quite without a conclusive narrative at the end which would have been quite a tragedy with people trying to come up with their own conclusions. Kafka's conclusion is of course the most natural even though it is quite shocking.

The Trial begs comparison to the more popular fight of a single man against a towering all-encompassing bureaucracy -- Orwell's "1984". Of course, Orwell's world is almost the conclusion of Kafka's society. "1984" is much more dramatic and cataclysmic which, of course, inherently makes it more fictitious and improbable if not outright impossible. Whereas the trial is much more real. In fact, it is so amazingly nuanced that it in fact, one could argue, is already the nature of today's society and its laws. Laws made by man are inherently flawed as they are nothing more than an expression of popular opinion at a given point in time. It is an attempt, a fairly unsuccessful one, one might add, at encoding all human folly into well-defined cause and effect linearity. This attempt itself is, of course, nothing but vain and naive, much like all else the society, typically the western, has tried to achieve by its notion of a "government" and the finality of law, which in itself is merely arbitrary and temporal at best and whimsical at worst.

Kafka's universe is cleverly staged. Kafka's experience is the experience of a modern western bureaucracy -- so engulfed in its own sustenance that it is incapable of observing its own absurdity. It exists merely for itself and the cogs that move it and the original purpose (to protect and individual) for which it might have been conceived, and that is a mere presupposition, has been lost so long ago that it doesn't even matter.

Below the course-grained veneer of the "The Trial" is of course Kafka's open question to humanity. What is the nature of guilt? Who is guilty? Is being alive being guilty? This isn't merely a metaphorical question but a pragmatic one. Given today's laws, their complexity and their adaptability -- is one really ever truly innocent? There is an interpretation of the book that hinges on just that theory. Joseph K. is guilty because he is alive and must make peace with it just like everyone else does. Here, in K's character you see a slanted reference to Raskolnikov from Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment", both protagonists facing their dilemma with guilt. However, the fact that K's dilemma is far more subtle, makes it for an even darker premise. Kafka, it is well known, was heavily influenced by Dostoevsky and specially by "Crime and Punishment".

If not clear already, I was greatly moved by the book. I think I was impressed with it right from the beginning but the monologues by the lawyer on the nature of law, by the painter on the nature of acquittal and finally the dialogue between the chaplain and K. in the cathedral had quite an impact on me. Especially the conversations in the cathedral and the story of the gatekeeper and the countryman with its inherent dilemma and depressing yet very interesting debate.


For more information see the Wikipedia entry for the trial here.