Franz Kafka’s The Trial is a book I’ve been meaning to get around to reading for a while. Over the years I’ve heard promising things about it and the fact that it has become common parlance to describe something that is senseless or disorientating as Kafkaesque is a great testament to the man’s work. It’s with a heavy heart, however, that I must admit that I did not enjoy reading The Trial.
I wanted to like it so much. I wanted to start using the word Kafkaesque as much as possible, I wanted to recommend this book to friends, and I wanted it to be a book I would revisit time and time again. I usually delight on pissing on something popular but I get no pleasure in admitting that I really had to force myself to get to the end of this one.
The difficulty in criticising The Trial is the fact that Kafka died before he finished it, and he himself never intended for it to be published. The Trial was discovered a year after Kafka had died and was edited and published by his good friend Max Brod. It’s hard to lay criticism at anyone’s door, Kafka never intended for it to be published in the state it was in, and Brod was merely letting the world see what a talented writer like Kafka was working on before his death.
“Wait a minute,” I hear you cry, “You just called Kafka talented, whilst saying you didn’t like The Trial!”. Let me clarify all this. Kafka is an excellent writer, you don’t get his sort of reputation without being good at what you do. His writing style is unique, different from what you may be used to, and dryer, but that doesn’t make him a bad writer. This little review is both unfair on me and Kafka because most of my criticisms are squared away by the fact that this book was unfinished. So, lets start at the beginning.
The Trial is a novel about a young, well-to-do man named K. who is unexpectedly arrested and charged with committing a crime that his accusers refuse to reveal the details of. Eager to prove his innocence, K. enters a world of inaccessible authority and bureaucracy where nothing seems to make sense.
So far so good, the idea of a faceless authority accusing an innocent man of a crime, the nature of which he isn’t even aware of is an excellent start. My first gripe with the story is the fact that despite being arrested, K. is free to go about his business. He often notices strange figures spying on him and he gets the occasional unannounced visit from his accusers but he’s not locked away in a cell or put under house arrest. His friends and colleagues only know he’s accused because he tells them. This just didn’t strike me as feeling particularly threatening compared to 1984’s Big Brother who’s Thought Police simply make people disappear. However, this isn’t 1984 and this is Kafka’s story, not Orwell’s, so fair enough. One thing I did like about the early part of the book was the fact that none of the people assigned to arrest K. could tell him what he was being arrested for. It’s not that they’re in on the conspiracy, they are doing what their higher-ups have ordered them to do without being told why they must do it. As far as they know, K. could be some kind of kitten kicking, puppy punching, weapon of mass destruction wielding, terrorist who must be stopped. It’s hard to make decent people do bad things, but if you can keep them in the dark and assure them that what they’re doing is good, then you’re onto something. Bloody well played, Kafka. Bloody well played.
From here on K. tries to continue his normal life whilst at the same time trying to get a feel as to how best combat his arrest. His friends and colleagues remain loyal to him but they are unable to give him any real help. Help seems at hand when K’s uncle visits him and tells him he knows a good lawyer who will take his case. K. and his uncle visit the lawyers house ad the lawyer explains to K. how the court works like an impenetrable maze and just how difficult it will be for K. to win this fight completely. K. seems to get bored of this and excuses himself for a moment where he then bumps into the maid who has a thing for accused men and they bang. That’s about the point where I stopped giving a shit if K. won the case or not. Get your head in the game, K!
K. then learns of a painter who often paints members of the court and who would be willing to give K. some valuable insight into his case. K. goes to visit this painter and along the way he encounters a group of teenage girls who tease him sexually (I don’t know why). Upon entering the painter’s apartment, K. is told by this artist that there is no evidence of an accused man ever winning a case. The painter reveals that K. has two options, he can either get a verdict of innocence from the lower court, which could be overturned at any point by the higher court, or he could curry favour with the lower ranking judges to keep the case proceeding at a glacial pace. Despite the painter saying that he has more to tell him, K. begins to feel unwell and decides to leave.
Once again I feel that Kafka does an excellent job of having the painter reveal that whilst the system can’t be directly defeated, it can be exploited for one’s own benefit. However, I also became seriously frustrated with how disinterested K. seems to be with his case. First he bails on his lawyer to have sexy times with the maid, then he decides to leave whilst a man who is very much in the know is telling him how he can best solve his case. K. was feeling unwell, fine, but how about arranging to meet the painter at a later date? Maybe get his address, send him some letters? Nope, K. just walks out.
K. decides that maybe he does care about his case so he goes to fire his lawyer because he feels he’s not getting anywhere. Whilst waiting at his lawyer’s house, K. meets another of the lawyer’s clients who has been battling his case for five years and has gone from a rich business man to a pathetic creature who was essentially a slave to his lawyer, more on that in a second. K. tells his lawyer he doesn’t need him anymore and that his lawyer isn’t dedicating enough time to him. The lawyer tells K. that he’s got things good and has his other client come in. The client obeys every command the lawyer makes and begs him to continue working on his case despite the lawyer treating him like a dog.
This is another excellent bit. The idea that trials can drag on for years and strip once respected people down to a shell of their former self is an excellent insight. The fact that the lawyers end up having contempt for their client is an equally good idea and of course the clients are going to let themselves be treated like shit because they’ve got no one else. At that point they live and die by their lawyers and wouldn’t dare bite the hand that feeds.
K. then visits a cathedral where he meets a priest who knows who he is and tells him a short parable about a man who attempts to speak to the law. K. and the priest discuss the different interpretations of the parable and K. begins to realise how hopeless his case is.
On the eve of his thirty-first birthday, two men arrive at K’s apartment and he accompanies them without resistance to a quarry. K. is made to kneel down and one of the men draws a butchers knife. After the two men pass it back and forth between one another, K. realises that the two men are hoping he will end it himself but K. will not give them the satisfaction. Eventually one of the men pulls him back and thrusts the knife into his heart. K’s last words before dying are “Like a dog!” So the story concludes.
The Trial is certainly a worthy vision of a dystopian future, but obviously I found it flawed. Two things I thought The Trial ought to have mentioned was what would have happened if K. had eventually been convicted of his crime? Would he go to some terrible Room 101 type cell where he would be left to rot? Or, is it actually the point of these trials to drag on forever? If so, what does the court have to gain from this? Why was K. targeted? So many questions, but like the trial itself, so few answers. Was this even real, or was it a nightmare?
There are points to The Trial that you could drive a bus through but again, this was an unfinished novel, it’s unfair to judge it like a regular book. A few of my complaints I do think stand up to scrutiny, no one could deny that the writing style is dryer than Ryvita and I would say that K. is a very difficult character to root for. He certainly seems to be more concerned about where his next piece of ass is coming from rather than his freedom.
Will I be adding The Trial to my list of favourite books? Certainly not. I appreciate that the novel is unfinished but that does nothing to ease the difficulty, and at times, boredom I experienced whilst reading it. However, I would recommend you give this a go if you think it sounds interesting but if you’re looking for a light read then good lord this isn’t what you’re after.
Do you agree with my points? Do you disagree? Do you think I’m a little philistine who needs to go back to his Mr Men books? Let me know in the comments, I’m interested to read your views.