The Trial by Franz Kafka

Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

These wonderful words by John Donne epitomize humanism and social collective responsibility, and they also illustrate what this novel is NOT about. The book is a perfect illustration of Kafkaesque vision – it is about alienation, hidden and haunting menace, anxiety, unknown and unknowable complexity of the world around. Where does this alienation stem around? Kafka was born in the Jewish family and was exploring Jewish culture and spiritual heritage most of his life. At the same time the place of his birth is Prague, Bohemia, and all his books and short stories were written in German. So he was a cross-cultural person, a person open to other ethnic and linguistic cultures, a person with the cosmopolitan background.  Could this really be the origin of his desire to show the world as a menacing inner cosmos of a man, trapped in his own perception?

Or should we also account for Kafka’s mental and physical condition?  It is widely known that Kafka died from starvation caused by tuberculosis. His Jewish background could be viewed as an eye-opening experience only by modern standards. At the time of his life and death Jews were persecuted and often displaced and eventually lived in ghettos.  Kafka’s mental state (personality disorder) and the general plight of the Jews obviously changed his vision of individuality and in the long run affected his creative perception of reality. Whether these facts really influenced Kafka’s writing is still a point of debate in the literary world, but one thing is definite – The Trial is a work of monumental significance and innovation. The main character, Josef K., a chief financial officer in the big bank, finds one morning that he is arrested and charged with an unspecified crime.  The nature of this crime will never be disclosed either to K. (that is how he is called in the novel) or to readers. K is later summoned to attend a court session on SUNDAY?!! (a salvation day)  and, what is more, the people around him know about his legal predicament. The only person who does not know what is going on is K. This element of plot (if this is the appropriate term for the literary impressionism) definitely creates this  emanation of secrecy, anxiety, suspicion, and alienation – K. is painfully unaware how the system functions, how and what people he should approach, and what his next steps are. These feelings of anxiety and suspicion portray “the emotional landscape” of hypochondria and rejection.

During the following months K. learns about numerous cases the court is dealing with – so he is not the only one, and this might explain why the abbreviated version of his last name is used – he is one of many. Besides, it heightens the stenographic style of his writing, and it also conveys a certain message of predetermination. Another explanation of this bizarre novel is a symbolic one – K’s unknown crime is an allusion to an Original Sin (the episode in the cathedral when K is told a fable about the origin and the purpose of the gates).

K’s final moments are permeated with the feeling of his personal calamity and demise. K. accepts his brutal death with no resistance and his final words ‘Like a dog!’ state that life is non-consequential, inexplicable, confused, and often brutal.

The sad, disjointed  impressionistic novel is a brilliantly penetrating insight not only into the world of law, red tape, and bureaucracy, but it is also a powerful voice, portraying human alienation and anxiety due to the unknown nature of human existence. The novel masterfully warns us about the oppressive regime when a person can become a nobody in a blink of an eye and consequently be lost in the well of the on-going cases, court sessions, appellations, provisional verdicts of innocence, and re-initiation of legal processes. A real human being in flesh and blood is lost in this nightmare of legal practice and is haunted by the eternal and intimidating unknown.  The bleak reality of the literary masterpiece.


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Filed under Book Review, Classic, Literary Fiction, Uncategorized

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