Some thoughts on Kafka’s “The Trial”

Original review here

I have never been arrested. I have never had any kind of legal trouble. Having read this, I really don’t want to, especially bearing in mind what I did whilst reading it, the assertion by Aaron Swartz that, “This isn’t fiction, but documentary.” I do know enough about Serious Business autocracies and police states (and the legal systems stemming from English common law) that he is, most likely, correct, even not bearing in mind that he said this because it, all of it, happened to him.

So, what happens to Josef K.? He is arrested, and yet remains at liberty. He is charged with a crime the nature of which is never revealed to him. He petitions various people for help, with some weird sexual under/over tones, and yet never receives any. He resolves to defend himself, and doesn’t, and in a more real sense, cannot (partly, I imagine, because this is a novel Kafka wrote an ending for, but never finished).

The impression that is left with me, is one of someone playing by rules that no one else cares about or recognises. K. makes some appeals to logic and reason in his first interrogation, but to no effect. He reasons that, surely he cannot be found guilty, because he is innocent, and how exactly can he defend himself when he has not been made aware what law he has violated, what crime he has committed? This is, apparently, not how The Law works. Take it as a document of a man tangled in a bureaucracy the length and breadth of which will not (cannot) ever be revealed to him. Take it as an allegory of how we all punish ourselves for the sin (the only sin) of being born. There is, I think, no possible solution. Not that it’s a puzzle, mind, but all I am left with is a right fucking mess. It definitely describes real life. I couldn’t tell you how, or point at it.

I read this after I read The Crying of Lot 49. I get the feeling that the latter work is something of a rewrite of The Trial into a strip tease. In The Trial, partly though Kafka’s leaving the work unfinished and partly through, as Max Brod notes in his epilogue, that it was intended that K. never really finds out anything, one is certain that revelation, the actual charge against K. or an explanation from a high official, cannot be given us because, in various senses, it does not exist. Pynchon takes this, dials up the paranoia factor, and teases us right to last fucking line with promises we are certain will, soon, be fulfilled. And never are.

Another thought recurred to me while reading this. Pynchon’s Proverbs for Paranoids all present in some form throughout The Trial, but particularly considering K.’s languishing among the low courts and officials, and even more considering the abortive sexuality that pervades his quest, this one stands out:

“You may never get to touch the Master, but you can tickle his creatures.”


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