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[824] The Trial – Franz Kafka

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“Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything wrong, he was arrested.” (Arrest, 14)

Like 1984, The Trial presents a disturbingly realistic world under a totalitarian reign. Despite having written some 35 years before Orwell’s abd the language more simple, The Trial is by far more chilling. On the day of his thirtieth birthday, Josef K., a bank chief financial officer, is under arrest for some unspecified crime. He is allowed to get on with his daily life, but it becomes tedious as he has to defend his prestige at work and appear in court summon.

Although K. maintains adamantly that he is innocent (he is then told not to make a fuss of his innocence), at no point is there a hint given of the crime he may have committed. His life becomes increasingly dominated by lawyer, judges, and people who claim to have connections with the court but in reality cannot alter the outcome of his trial. His summons take place in courts that are in the attics of seedy apartment buildings, which lead to a growing sense of foreboding.

You don’t have to consider everything true, you just have to consider it necessary.” (In the Cathedral, 223)

Absolute acquittal is soon discovered to be an impossible dream, as is the possibility of a fair trial which is not entirely influenced by court politics and inter-relationships. Over the course of a year, Josef K. gradually weakens in his struggle with the mysterious forces that close in on him. Every effort to take the trial in his hand is thwarted by hideous entanglement of bureaucracy, which consists of corrupt, inane officials in pecking order. They are solicitous about the unknown authority’s cause but have no knowledge of the cause. They are bound by an empty formality.

Kafka might have been credited for his prophetic power in rendering this black world where a once respectable banker is suddenly prosecuted for apparently no reason at all. But there’s more to the book than an attack on totalitarianism and the evil of a mindless bureaucracy. The “system” as life itself and the bureaucracy as fate and man’s useless struggle against the forces arrayed against him by the universe. There’s the mindless judging of men against themselves. Kafka’s style and his world are often reflected most tellingly in passages marked by a sense of unease, perhaps even discomfort. The book, read like a dream without ever knowing what is against Josef K., is an absurdist classic that strikes at the very heart of that which humans fear most: powerlessness.

276 pp. Schocken Books. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

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