The Trial by Franz Kafka.
Much has been written about this book. Many opinions seem to be rife about the meaning and the basic allegory of the plot and the story.
Kafka came from a German-speaking Jewish family and lived in Prague in Bohemia.He had a background of working in a job described by his father as a ‘breadjob’ meaning he was just earning money with no career.He worked for an insurance company where he dealt with worker’s injury claims, although he had a doctorate in law. He had a five-year attachment to Felice Bauer and although it consisted only of a number of meetings and a great deal of correspondence, they were engaged several times, each time breaking it off until their relationship finally failed in1917.
Kafka completed ‘The Trial’ in 1915, though it was unfinished and later required editing by Max Brod his close friend. It has been studied and many opinions exist of its meaning. Kafka's dying wish was that Brod should burn the manuscript, but happily, he didn't.
There seem to be several interpretations. On the one hand,the story is supposed by some to be the depiction of the futility of struggling against fate or God. Others suppose it represents Kafka as a Jew in a society where Jews were condemned openly or behind the scenes, since anti-Semitism was rife in Europe even before the First World War.
The book begins with an ‘arrest’. The central character, ‘K’ (is it coincidence that he has the author’s initial and all other characters have spelled-out names?), a man aged thirty who works in a bank is confronted by two men who claim he is under arrest, but free to work and move around, but that a trial will commence to determine his future.
In the following story, K becomes acquainted with a number of characters who lead him in a fanciful dance designed to indicate the futility of his attempts to battle the ‘Courts’. It turns out almost everyone he encounters has been or is involved with the courts and even his family know he has a forthcoming trial without his communication with them. Everyone knows he is subject to ‘The Process’ but even K never discovers what it is he is supposed to have done. I won’t spoil the ending but I think it is symbolic not real. He meets various people who claim to be able to circumvent the outcome of the court and its decision, but he is at times enraged by it all and at other times passive, resisting any help whoever it is offered by. In the end, his fate is the reward he reaps by his intransigence and his resistance to taking advice.
My own feeling about the book is that it is not as simple asseeing it as written with one message. I think there are layers of allegory. On the one hand, one could interpret it as showing how society treats minorities.There is a veiled condemnation of the individual which is unfathomable at first, subtle and hidden, but eventually becoming frank and obvious. A Jew living in Eastern Europe might well feel that was so.
Another layer is the futility of fighting against Society’s opinions. Everyone is part of a social society and whomever you talk to they are part of it and that is revealed repeatedly in the book. K finds that even places he never identified as part of his trial are part of the courtrooms and court process. He doesn’t trust his lawyer – OK, he has common sense!
Yet another portrayal of the author’s underlying theme requires one to see how he might have viewed society’s opinion of his relationship with Felice. It was off-on. It consisted of a lot ofcorrespondence and few ‘in the flesh’ encounters. Could it be that The Trial mirrors his feeling about how society might have viewed his eventual refusal to lead a normal, married life? Was he ostracised as a result?
If one transgresses, society may condemn one. It might not be immediately apparent that some force is working in the background against you. The evolution of the antipathy may emerge with time and eventually result in the apex of condemnation by the very social world in which one lives. To be Jewish and to jilt someone publicly – might that not evoke feelings of guilt - even a feeling that society condemns one without any visible trial?
But in the end, what is K guilty of? Is he just guilty of digging his heels in against a manipulative, turgid system, designed to visitits hatred and injustice on anyone who chooses to be different or even be born different? He is guilty of underestimating the power of the hierarchy. He is guilty of ignorance of the very system that controls us. He is even guilty of passivity. It results in the eventual judgement where the book ends.
So, the verdict? My verdict?
This is a book that has made me think more than any other I have read since I was a teenager (the first time I read it). Recommend it? Well if you have tolerance for some boring parts and patience to reap the eventual reward of the book, then yes.Not for everyone. It’s not an adventure book but as someone who works a as a tiny cog in a big machine it speaks to me as no other book does!
My own book ‘The Cyclist’ is modelled much less cleverly on the concept of how it might feel to be part of a big machine and discover it is evil and examine how an individual might react. A bit like working in the NHS????