The Trial

by Franz Kafka, first published in 1925 as Der Prozess, translated by Douglas Scott and Chris Walker,
and republished in English in 1988 by Picador, 254 pages.
Reviewed by Jack Heppner.

This novel plunges the reader into what has come to be known as a “Kafkaesque” world, described variously as “mysterious”, “tortuously bureaucratic” to “nightmarish”. Born in 1883, Kafka was the son of a self-made Jewish merchant who was determined to crush any of his son’s plans that did not accord with his own materialistic aspirations. While Kafka trained as a lawyer and worked in the insurance business, in his heart he was “a writer in spite of himself”. He was a Jew living among aggressive German Gentiles, a German among Czechs, a bourgeois with a bad conscience about the working classes, and a man with a passion for writing in a world more attuned to the pettiness of daily survival. Besides that he suffered repeatedly from tuberculosis which ended his life just before his forty-first birthday. It appears that Kafka’s search for truth and justice left him repeatedly disappointed, especially when he searched for it in the context of the Law.

It would appear that in many ways Kafka represents himself in the central character of The Trial, namely; Joseph K., simply referred to as K. throughout the novel. Although only 29 years old, K. holds a fairly prestigious position in a bank. He is awakened one morning in the boarding house where he lives to find two men at his door declaring that he is to be arrested. Although he is allowed to go to work, he increasingly becomes aware of the fact that he has been targeted by a court that he knows nothing about as being guilty of a serious crime. Yet, throughout the novel, K. never finds out what he has been accused of. The only answer he gets from “lower-level bureaucrats” is that in order to get arrested his crime must have been very serious. When he tries to protest his innocence he is told that the guilty always talk that way.

So as the story unfolds K. has a series of encounters with this clandestine court and many of its emissaries. On the one hand he is free to ignore them, but on the other he is drawn into a futile attempt to clear his reputation. And in the end it appears that K. even takes a perverse kind of pride in being singled out for judgement. Yet, in every chapter, K. discovers new levels of mystery and intrigue of this shadowy court system. And it even involves people he might otherwise have trusted. So like a man struggling too hard in quicksand, K. finds himself embroiled ever more deeply in the labyrinth of a court system that is not even understood by most of the people working within its clutches. K.’s final verdict obviously is pronounced in his absence, since in the final chapter, simply called The End, two men appear at his boarding house and take him a way to be killed in a quarry on the edge of town. K.’s final words are, “Like a dog!” And then the novel is done.

It is small wonder that this work has become one of the most widely read, influential and interpreted novels of the 20th century. I was left with a desire to run out to find someone else who had read it to discuss what it all means. It seems to me that the power of this novel lies in the prophetic and symbolic. It foreshadows both the power of a “court” in captivity to the Third Reich in Europe and Stalin’s Russia. Yet Kafka insisted that he was only representing his own age. But more than that, it seems to me to be symbolic of the tremendous propensity within human nature to judge others in their absence – dropping hints perhaps that court proceedings are on-going against them, but never letting them know just what they are being accused of. And even more sinister, it is symbolic of how those so accused allow themselves to be defined by the very guilt they are trying to protest against – and end up destroyed in the whole process.

The question that lingers in my mind is whether Joseph K. could have averted his fate had he simply not cooperated with this “kangaroo court”. Perhaps if he had just gone about his work and not been drawn into the assumption of guilt he might have been able to survive unscathed. But such unofficial courts are indeed powerful and hard to evade completely.

As I reflect on life, even in the context of the church at large, I find Kafka’s symbolism ringing quite true. It is not uncommon to gradually become aware of a flurry of semi-official judgements of guilt being pronounced against one by minions of a system that is quite impenetrable. Seldom is one told just what the charges are. Nevertheless, the charges apparently circulate within the “circle of the concerned”, none of which are willing to speak forthrightly with those charged by these clandestine courts of the self-righteous. And in that context one can follow the example of Joseph K. in an attempt to have justice done. Or perhaps one can emasculate the power of such courts by simply choosing to ignore their shady operations and living out one’s calling as faithfully as possible. It seems to me that the latter option is the best, even if in the end “the court” has its way with you. What do you think?