“It’s only because of their stupidity that they’re able to be so sure of themselves.”
The Trial gets 2 out of 3 “Good Intentions for 2019” points – it was bought in a charity shop, it is not something I’d normally read (more on that later), but it’s not written by a woman.
Instead, it was written by Franz Kafka, for whom I have always had a soft spot in my literary soul.
First of all, he writes really weird, out there stuff. The Metamorphosis is about a guy who wakes up one day to find himself turned into a beetle. I mean, the word ‘kafkaesque’ was literally invented to deal with his works. But it shows how great of a writer he is that you totally buy into this. The Trial is no exception to the ‘weird assumption, but okay’ rule, but I’ll talk more about that in a moment.
Before that, I want to tell you that if you know nothing else about Franz Kafka’s life (and it is a life worth knowing more about), it is that he was an insurance clerk in Prague. His writing had to be done in his spare time. I don’t know why this fact matters so much to me, but it does.
(Did you know that Einstein was working as a clerk at the patent office when he came up with the Theory of Relativity? Same energy.)
So. The Trial.
Everything you need to know about this book comes in the very first sentence.
“Somebody must have made a false accusation against Josef K., for he was arrested one morning without having done anything wrong.”
That’s absurd, you think. How can you be arrested like that. And indeed, that’s what Josef K. thinks, too. He then gets put before a tribunal, which explains that for now, he will be ‘set free’, but he will need to attend his court dates. Nobody tells him what exactly it is he is accused of, or by whom, or what his rights are.
It is the opposite of the Rule of Law and yet the jailers and justices give the entire act an undeniable air of respectability. The authority is remote and inaccessible, but cannot be questioned.
The book then follows Josef K. over the next year of his life. You see how at first, he doesn’t take the whole thing seriously (who would?), and then, bit by bit, how he submits to his fate and accepts the punishment.
But what strikes me as the most important actor in this book is not even Josef K – it is the authorities who put him on trial. They are never seen – all the justices and clerks and lawyers constantly repeat and emphasize that it is not them who are in charge, it’s someone else, some intangible.
And it is this contrast between the vague authorities and the very real consequences for Josef K. that make this an endlessly fascinating read.
But, I have to say this – I didn’t like reading this book. Not because it isn’t good – it is very good, in fact. But it unsettles you deeply. You can’t help but wonder what you would do if you found yourself in the same situation, and that of course means you think it could happen to you, too.
We all hope to be the heroes of our stories, we like to believe that we would do it differently, that we would fight, or laugh, or ignore it – but K.’s final acceptance of his fate is the more realistic outcome, if we are being honest with ourselves.
K never found out what he was accused of – but it doesn’t matter, because he accepted his guilt. I had to remind myself that Kafka was Jewish, because this acceptance of guilt – the presumption that you are born in sin and cannot be redeemed – is at the very centre of Catholicism.
The Trial must have attracted an endless streams of essays. It is a book that English teachers love, because it’s easily accessible, has a moral point to it, and can be interpreted widely. Which is a pity, because I think a lot of people read this in school, and never again. Whereas it is a book that should be read widely, constantly, by citizens. Because the central point – what I took away from my lecture – is the relationship between the state and the individual, and how there is an inherent power imbalance between those two actors.
It could happen to you too, Kafka says, and at the end of The Trial, you see no reason to disagree.