Kafka’s novel, The Trial is the story of a man, Josef K., who is summoned to court but never learns what the charge against him is. This is the work that is most associated with the adjective “Kafkaesque,” probably because of the sense of confusion in a process that is never understood. Once more, the limits of reason are a factor: we expect the law to be a highly rational structure, but in The Trial it isn’t. What should be its rational structure is always being eaten away by the haphazard interventions of disorganized human nature.
What many readers seem to take away from The Trial is that there is a sinister hidden conspiracy against K.: an unfortunate individual is beleaguered by forces he doesn’t understand. But if we look carefully at what actually happens in the novel, that is not really its major focus. The two people who come to arrest him have no idea why they are doing it, and the only thing that seems to interest them is eating K.’s breakfast, which they devour with gusto. K. behaves as any reasonable person would: “Here are my identity papers,” he says, “show me yours, and especially the arrest warrant.” The two men brush his formally correct approach aside: “What do we care about papers? … Do you think you’ll bring your whole damned process to a speedy end by arguing with us, the guards, about papers and the warrant? We are just lowly employees, who don’t even know what papers are, and who have nothing to do with your case except to get paid for guarding you for ten hours a day.”
There is no sign here of any coherent and malevolent force at work, though a very real problem has surfaced: K. is going to find it hard to get through the dense phalanx of ordinary, ill-informed, and not very interested people who stand between him and the ostensibly rational legal system. The law operates by means of a series of magnificent abstractions and processes: warrants, rulings, evidence, and finally justice. But between K. and the law stand far too many people who care mostly about immediate, everyday concerns, like getting a breakfast or making a living. The grandeur of the law never seems to impress those people, yet they are a large part of its implementation. They can be distracted, hungry, tired, or bored, but one thing they are not is the embodiment of the law’s artificial concepts.
K. notices first one, then two, and finally three people in the house opposite his own who are looking through their windows at what is going on. They distract K., just as they themselves are distracted by the visit of the two bailiffs. What do they add to Kafka’s story? They are simply people who are curious about something that is unusual. They are not concerned about the justice of what is happening; in fact, they are not taking any attitude to it at all. When legal proceedings are involved, the reader expects careful distinctions and precise explanations. In- stead we get only mundane confusion: gawkers who are bored with their own lives and bailiffs who are going through the motions. They all have no idea what is going on or why, and this sets a pattern that continues.
K. is told to come to court on the next Sunday, but he is not given the time of day. He is told the address of the building, but not which room in that building. Law courts are commonly situated in structures that are dedicated to that one function, and they are usually dignified and impressive. They are designed precisely to generate respect for the majesty of the law. But the place that K. is directed to is an apartment complex, and there is no indication just where the law court might be within that complex. He knocks on apartment doors to find where it might be, until at last when he knocks at one on the fifth floor the young woman who answers points to an adjoining door that is already open. Instead of being separated from ordinary life by an imposing structure that emphasizes its uniqueness, it’s hidden among ordinary dwellings. The room in which he finds the court doesn’t even look like a court. An unruly crowd of all kinds of people form the backdrop for K.’s court proceedings, undermining the solemnity of the law. In one corner there is even an impromptu sexual liaison going on, as a crowd gathers round. Justice is set in the context of everyday life, and it’s just as disorganized.
A merchant whom K. meets during his quest gives him a brutally frank account of what happens in the search for justice: “you must remember, that in this procedure many times things are spoken of that the mind can’t really handle, people are just too tired or distracted for much of it, and they turn to superstition instead.” Worse still, the people who work in the law court seem to have been damaged by it; they are so used to the stale air of the offices that fresh air coming in from the stairway seems to upset them.
Kafka’s German title Der Prozess is usually translated as The Trial, but it can have the broader meaning of a process, and that is surely one of the ways in which we should understand it. The book gives us an account of a lengthy process, but never a real trial. During this process we see Kafka’s recurring theme of a highly rational structure eaten away and changed out of all recognition because it is run by people who are easily sidetracked and prone to miss the point.
The apprehension of the culprit usually comes at the end of a crime story. But in Franz Kafka’s The Trial, the arrest is signaled in the first sentence. In most mystery stories, the reader’s curiosity is aroused by the pressing question of who committed the crime. In Kafka’s reversal of the genre, the guilty party is known from the outset, but what what law he violated is far less clear. Other culprits flee from the law, but Joseph K. confronts with gusto the legal system that has accused him of an unknown offense. In short, every aspect of the traditional crime story is turned upside down in this famous novel.
Other mysteries emerge as the story progresses, but—again—not those that typically figure in crime stories. Who are the authorities making the charges? What is the evidence? What is the process to decide innocence or guilt? What are the penalties and punishments? Even the significance of being ‘under arrest’ is uncertain, since K. is never brought to jail.
Kafka does everything possible to emphasize the quotidian qualities of his story. He is quick to remind readers that ‘K lived in a country with a legal constitution, there was universal peace, all the laws were in force.’ The rote rituals and responsibilities of ordinary life continue as usual even after Joseph K’s arrest—he still goes to work, consults with friends, sees family members…everything proceeding without significant disruption. Even so, the judicial procedures here both intrusive and unsettling. The very locations where they take place—in the attic of a tenement, or a woman’s room in a boarding house, or the storage place in a bank—blur the lines between the everyday world and the formal settings we typically associate with legal matters. In Kafka’s upside-down world, the places where justice is dealt out resemble the locales where, in other novels, crimes might be committed.
Although The Trial was left in an unfinished state, Kafka tries to give closure to the work in a dramatic final scene. Yet even at the end, Joseph K. is wondering where is the Judge, where is the High Court—’were there arguments in his favor that had been overlooked?’ In a book that solved the crime and apprehended the criminal at the outset, huge mysteries remain after the story’s close. Inconsistencies in the plot remain and drafts of unfinished chapters add to the ambiguity of the final work, but these hardly detract from Kafka’s masterpiece. Indeed, one senses that this is a mystery in which the author deliberately wanted many elements to remain unresolved.
Do we distort Kafka’s intentions by looking at this canonic work in the context of crime fiction? We have good reason to believe that Kafka would have had no objections to such an approach. His friend Janouch relates a revealing anecdote in this regard. Janouch was embarrassed when, one day, a crime novel in his briefcase was seen by Kafka. The latter quickly reassured him: ‘There is no need to be ashamed of reading such things,” Kafka said. “Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment is, after all, only a crime novel. And Shakespeare’s Hamlet? It is a detective story. At the heart of the action is a mystery, which is gradually brought to the light. But is there a greater mystery than the truth? Poetry is always an expedition in search of truth.’
This is the same spirit in which we need to read Kafka’s The Trial, and indeed this author’s other works as well. He takes mystery to a higher level—one in which clues, evidence and the atmosphere of suspense and uncertainty are raised beyond the scene of the crime and permeate the world around us. In this regard—as Kafka’s definition of poetry makes explicit—all true literary works confront, to some degree, the mysterious. The adornments provided by police, judge and jury are merely empty gestures to compartmentalize and circumscribe this mystery with the appearance of coherence and completion. Kafka resists this process at every step, even while mocking it via his use of plot elements drawn from conventional crime fiction. And if, in The Trial, Kafka had altered the conclusion and given his beleaguered protagonist an acquittal or dropped the proceedings completely, this element of mystery would still have remained. After all, our author seems to say, this is not just Joseph K’s trial, but our’s as well.
Kafka seems not to be at his best or most typical in The Trial. That’s because while his take on reason and prudence in “The Burrow” is startling and unique, as is his commentary on human ideals in “The Hunger Artist,” the insights of The Trialare more familiar. That human factors interfere with the law’s abstract notions is a commonplace idea—well known to people who study how juries decide cases, for example. But perhaps the central issue of the book is that K. never learns the charge against him, and, “being ignorant of the actual charge and even its possible extensions, one’s whole life in all its smallest actions and events must be remembered, presented and examined from all sides.” What Kafka says here is precise and devastating. It’s the very frightening thing about being subjected to a process without specific charge. But it is also thoroughly familiar to anyone who knows the legal history of the English-speaking world. For this was the modus operandi of the infamous Star Chamber of seventeenth-century England, and its critics put their finger on what made it so evil in much the same terms.
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