Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Trial by Franz KAFKA

The term "Kafkaesque" is often used to describe existential, ridiculous and surreal personal encounters with government bureaucracy and they derive mostly from the selection of titles written by Franz KAFKA (1883-1924). These include such classics as "The Metamorphosis", "The Castle" and posthumously "The Trial".

KAFKA was a Jew, uniquely placed to comment on the queasy state of seeping antisemitism which grew to official policy under the Nazi's. Much of what he wrote described the worst fears of a totalitarian state. His popular novel "The Trial" was one of his many unfinished works at his death and was not published until 13 years later - right after the Nazi's took power. Such timing lead it to be incorrectly considered a satire on the absurdity of the Third Reich's absolute disregard for natural justice, despite a veneer of law.

Here is a critical synopsis of the book.
The Trial is a fascinating, truly terrifying performance but leaves an impression of incompleteness, of narrative threads calling out for repair.

The novel begins with one of the most famous openings in modern literature. It is the rising bank manager Joseph K.'s thirtieth birthday, and two sinister-looking men claiming to have court authorization to arrest him rudely accost him in his bed that morning. Someone must surely have falsely accused him of a crime. The two warders examine his clothes with a view to carting off what they can. Our protagonist K. wonders what authority these warders represent. The shock is immense, for as we are told: "He lived in a country with a legal constitution, there was universal peace, all the laws were in force; who dared seize him in his own dwelling?"

K. is told that he is free to proceed to work that day but must await a summons. Sure enough he is called to attend his first interrogation, the process of formally and systematically questioning a suspect in order to elicit incriminating responses. This odd affair takes place in a courtroom found in a maze of poorly ventilated, nondescript, disorientating office cubicles. We quickly learn that in this system, there is no due process of law, no rights whatsoever that an accused can rely upon, and that the process can be interminable. Kafka is offering us an exaggerated account of Austro-Hungarian criminal procedure -- no right to remain silent, etc. -- but also a grim prophecy of a situation in which the courts will be accountable to no citizen and will rule as arbitrarily as they wish.

K.'s uncle turns up at the bank to advise him to consult the eminent lawyer Huld ("Grace" in German). Growing ever-more desperate, our once-respectable hero dutifully attends before the lawyer, who claims to have important connections to the court, but who we immediately suspect will be unlikely to affect the outcome of these rigged proceedings.

The Trial is in important respects a symbolic account of the manner in which ordinary citizens will find their lives shattered by a totalitarian legal system which will rule by brute force under a veneer of legal rules. Kafka conveys the sheer horror and bewilderment of ordinary, apolitical citizens, who realize too late that a new regime has targeted them for punishment not for what they have done, but for who they are.

Perhaps the most tragic aspect of Kafka's chilling depiction of the ease in which a totalitarian regime can use the judicial machinery and a large bureaucracy to strip citizens of their rights is the way in which citizens respond with a mixture of fear and gullibility. Somehow, they think, there must be a reason for the laying of charges against their fellow citizens. In any event, there is no point in getting involved. No one in The Trial comes to Joseph K.'s aid in any meaningful manner, including the lawyers he encounters. K. himself, when he encounters others who have been charged with unknown offences, fails to make common cause with to join with in purposes and aims. And so a desolate end awaits the protagonist and by implication anyone else singled out by the sinister forces of the emerging totalitarian state.
To anyone who has been involved with Family Court, this sounds vaguely familiar.

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