Rating 4 stars
The Trial is my Czechia book on my European literary tour. I’m still at the beginning of my journey with Kafka. I read The Metamorphosis a fair few years ago, which I loved and have re-read, and then I bought a copy of The Castle from a book fair in Hebden Bridge. I struggled with it while reading, finding it quite soporific, but in the months after reading it, found myself still thinking about it. It’s taken me seven years to pick up my next Kafka, though.
I’ve long wanted to visit Kafka’s birth city of Prague, but somehow have never made time to. Two of our friends visited a handful of years ago, making me jealous.
I’m not sure about heading up Petřín Tower, given my slight vertigo, but I’d happily take the funicular up Petřín Hill to look out over the city.
And of course, I would visit Kafka’s grave in the New Jewish Cemetery.
I feel like I’ve reached Kafka backwards. Reading him now, I find echoes of other work I love: Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil; Joseph Heller’s Catch-22; pretty much everything by Haruki Murakami. But, of course, Kafka was the originator of that sense of the surreal and frustratingly ridiculous in modern society. He turned the dial up on what Dickens started with his examination of the ridiculous nature of the legal system in Little Dorrit and Bleak House, and stated that he was influenced by Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. He laid the path for the absurdism of Camus, O’Brien and Orwell.
I found The Trial more accessible than The Castle, perhaps because of its urban setting. Joseph K is an employee of a bank, someone who embodies office life. He rents a room in a boarding house. He spends his leisure time in bars. He carries the malaise of urban living, forced into close proximity with people who are rarely elevated above acquaintance status, having to endure a false conviviality, sailing a sea of endless small talk and never setting anchor to really get to know someone.
When he is informed one morning before breakfast that he is to be arrested, by two Warders sent to ineffectually guard him, he is nonplussed. When an Inspector then carries out the arrest, but can’t say what K’s crime is, and furthermore admits that K is free to continue his regular life, K is even more bemused. His landlady suggests that he might have unwittingly committed an impropriety with one of the female boarders, whose room the Inspector occupied for the arrest. This then leads K to commit an actual impropriety with the woman. When he is summoned to attend his first interrogation, with very little detail about where and when and very much chaos when he arrives there, he decides that he is going to resist the process and reveal the corruption in the system.
The summoning to the first interrogation reminded me of my experience with the hospital where I recently had surgery. The chaos can only partly be put down to the effects of Covid on staffing levels. I got the sense that the lack of communication between teams was built into the administrative structure. I love the NHS, am grateful that it’s free at the point of access, and especially grateful that my diagnosis and treatment happened as quickly as it did without me needing to worry about whether I could afford it or had insurance to cover it, but bureaucracy means it’s not perfect. The requirement for patients to be on the ball enough to ask questions, since information isn’t always automatically given, and the lack of knowledge among the administrative people who ought to have the answers is simultaneously laughable and stressful. In The Trial, K is given an address and a date for his interrogation over the telephone. He isn’t given a time, or a specific location within the building at the address. He has to guess that he might be needed at 9am, but doesn’t give himself enough time to navigate the warren of the building he finds himself at. I felt his frustration. I was given an appointment date, then caught Covid and had to wait a week without any acknowledgement to find out if my surgery would be rescheduled, then a further two weeks, on the barest information given over the phone, for the rescheduled date to be confirmed. I was promised a letter with the details of the rescheduled surgery, which never arrived, so had to go off the details in the original letter. “Just turn up at 7 on the new date,” my breast care nurse told me. And at each step, having been told in no uncertain terms that, having had Covid so recently, I didn’t need a preliminary PCR test, I was repeatedly asked why I hadn’t got a swab result. Including three times on the day of surgery, while I waited two hours for someone to decide whether to admit me to the ward, by people who had been in the same room as each other with my medical notes. Now I’m the other side of it, the ludicrousness is almost funny. The stage 1 hypertension it caused at the time is still too fresh in my mind, though. So I was with K from the off, my sympathy bolstered by working in the public sector with all of its bizarre hierarchies of decision making, whereby if you want to do something next week, you have to have known about it and sought approval six months ago, and have a minute from a meeting saying so. Am I joking? Only slightly. There’s a reason Brazil is one of my favourite films.
K’s advocate, a man who has embraced the system so much that he is rendered entirely ineffective by it, tells K a story about an ongoing case. There’s a paragraph that sums up bureaucracy nicely.
For although the pettiest Advocate might be to some extent capable of analysing the state of things in the Court, it never occurred to the Advocates that they should suggest or insist on any improvements in the system, while – and this was very characteristic – almost every accused man, even quite ordinary people among them, discovered from the earliest stages a passion for suggesting reforms which often wasted time and energy that could have been better employed in other directions. The only sensible thing was to adapt oneself to existing conditions.
Yep. You might think you have a better way of doing things, but the way it’s always been done is stronger than you.
I also liked the sense of becoming institutionalised that Kafka gets across. After months of his advocate making no progress and merely haranguing K about the impossibility and inevitability of the case each time they meet, K decides to take the matter into his own hands. He’s all set to write his own plea, when a client calls at the bank and derails him again. The impact of the tortuous case on his mind has left him unable to trust his own judgement and incapable of seeing what his actions might look like to someone outside his situation. When you do something a particular way for long enough, no matter how ridiculous it is, it becomes the only way of doing it. Particularly when the method is approved by a higher authority. It’s only when you try to explain it or demonstrate its worth to an outsider that you realise how much it’s holding you back from actually achieving anything.
There is a lot of analysis of The Trial already out in the world. I can’t add much more to it beyond my personal touch points of being alive in the 21st century and a cog in the system’s mechanism, living the experience of modern life being a trial of our own invention. Kafka wrote at a time of great change, of automation and the rapid assimilation of people into the machine of commerce and industry, of a less human way of living. We are living the consequences of that change.
I found The Trial as funny as it was bleak. The absurdity of K’s situation and the cast of characters who observe it and make comment on it are part of a thread that runs through Brecht, Beckett, Seinfeld and Sean Lock’s 15 Storeys High, to choose a handful of things from the riches of Western culture. The moral of the tale, and of other absurdist literature, is that it is simultaneously important and futile to learn from our experiences in life. The end will be what it was always going to be, all we have to do is choose the way we will be remembered.