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Gurglings of a Putrid Stream

Thoughts on books and other assorted topics.

See also:  http://goppf.wikidot.com/swstart

My name:  Brian Martin

The Trial by Franz Kafka

The Trial - Franz Kafka

The moon has nothing on OCD, which is a much harsher mistress. And I'm merely OCD-like in certain respects; I can't imagine the horrors of actually having the disorder. I've got a thing about completeness. Had I known that The Trial was not a novel but, significantly, an unfinished novel before I started reading it, I doubt I would have picked it up. Now, having done so, I'm glad I did, but here's the scary part. Despite having enjoyed it (very much), I think that only a fool would place any bets on me going on to read The Castle, which I've now discovered is also unfinished. That I should feel this way is truly ironic, considering how many projects I've left unfinished in my lifetime, but that's another story.


In truth, The Trial is almost finished, or almost finished enough. Late in the book there's a chapter that ends abruptly without resolution and the final chapter comes quite out of the blue, like a denouement without a third act to support it, but it's possible this last problem is one of organization. As I also learned, the chapter arrangement is all but arbitrary, since Kafka titled his chapters but didn't number them. At least one person has suggested a different arrangement, based on the psychology of the main character, that might alleviate the suddenness of the ending.


In any case, The Trial is about Joseph K., a man who wakes up on the morning of his 30th birthday to find two self-proclaimed warders who have come to arrest him. He doesn't know what he's done and neither do the warders; having placed him under arrest, they have discharged their duty, and K. is allowed to remain at large while his case is processed. As the days, weeks, and months pass, K. becomes increasingly obsessed with his case, about which he can learn nothing except that it appears to be going badly for him. All the while he is being sucked deeper into the machinations of the shadow court before which his fate will be decided.


One of Kafka's most impressive achievements is the way he keeps "reality" at bay, while at the same time suggesting that there is, in fact, something unreal about what is happening. While it would appear that all K. need do is go to the real authorities and explain his situation, it isn't so easy as that. Not when everyone else -- his landlady, his co-workers, his uncle -- all accept that K.'s arrest is, though perhaps unwarranted, nevertheless valid. The real world, the sane world, like his case, is just out of reach.


K. is, literally, trapped in an existentialist nightmare: his world is both absurd and dream-like. Nothing makes sense in the usual way, neither the legal system nor the normal laws of nature. As in a dream, he can enter the law offices by one route, and be directed to retrace his steps by another; people, including K. behave strangely; at least one character's name changes without explanation. One particularly frightening scene violates even time. It's a nightmare, but one from which there is no awakening. It works because, like a dream, it's all so vividly real.


Along the way, K. talks to such people as a lawyer, a painter, a preacher, and a fellow arrestee, as well as several women who find him irresistibly attractive, and one who doesn't. From them he learns a great deal about the bizarre legal system (Kafka was educated as a lawyer), while gaining no practical knowledge at all. These lengthy dialogues are fascinating, funny, and full of pointed observations about law, bureaucracy, and human psychology.


I once found myself at the mercy of the legal system for someone else's mistake and I can tell you, it truly is as frightening and tortuous as this book describes. I won't tell you how K.'s story ends, but I will say that it makes perfect sense to me.