The Trial (Penguin Modern Classics)

By Franz Kafka  |  Finished: 21st July 2010  |  Back to library

The Trial (Penguin Modern Classics)

Earlier this year I was involved in a research project where one interviewee used the word “Kafkaesque” to describe the experience of dealing with our client. When this came up, we had a brief discussion about what this word meant. The general agreement was that Kafkaesque organisations are characterised by pointlessly ornate bureaucracy, a definition that is pretty close to the way the word’s used in popular speech.

When this discussion took place I’d read The Castle and was just about to start reading The Trial, and when I did I found myself thinking a bit more about that word. In both of these novels there is something that is missing when we talk about things being Kafkaesque; speaking for myself, I always perceived there being something humorous or even silly about the word, a bit like the earlier sections of Catch 22 where the bureaucracy is daft to the point of being unrealistic.

What is missing from the definition of Kafkaesque is a sense of menace or even terror that emanates from the organisations in these novels. In The Castle this terror is understated and implied, but in The Trial it is brought into sharper focus. The system that the protagonist confronts is confusing and complicated, yes, but it’s far from being daft or laughable. Its remoteness and obscurity just makes it more chilling.

Kafka’s style lets this menace exude outwards from the judicial system at the novel’s core, through the initially defiant defendant Josef K, and out through the pages of the novel into the bones of the reader – well, this reader at least. I have to confess that I did find this novel terrifying, rendered like a bad dream in grainy black with an unnatural and jumpy frame-rate.

The merciless system that Josef K confronts is only outlined by Kafka and its inner machinations remain unknown. We meet a painter whose family has been engaged to create portraits of the judges for generations – the rules and conventions that these portraits must adhere to are so stringent that they can only be learnt from childhood, and in each portrait the judge is shown with his face contorted in rage, gripping the arms of his chair and in the process of raising himself up to condemn the viewer. A priest relates a fable, “Before the Law” (which Kafka had previously published as a short story), and goes on to discuss its interpretation within the jurisprudence of the system. These are probably the sections in which we see most fully the insides of the judicial system, but even these raise more questions than they answer.

After I finished reading The Trial I looked on the web for essays and criticism. I found a study guide on an American school’s website which said that the book was “against big government”. I didn’t bookmark that page. These sorts of interpretations are well wide of the mark. Kafka was not Orwell and he didn’t use novels to make political points. If anything The Trial is a depiction of a system ultimately composed of humans having grown into something that is basically inhuman.

If you do want to read the book as a roundabout critique of bureaucracy you’ll find it pretty fertile, but you’ll get more out of it if you approach it as a work of literature and something to experience. Just make sure you have something colourful and life-affirming to move on to afterwards, as The Trial offers the reader no redemption.

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