Review: ‘The Trial’ by Franz Kafka

‘The Trial’ is a bizarre book to think about because of its structure, and that involves the fact that it was incomplete and not meant to be published. Published it was, however, and I keep seeing the phrase Kafka-esque attached to it (which seems over-simplistic, of course the author’s writing will reflect him in some way, shape or form), but despite my sarcastic response to this, as I delved deeper and deeper into Josef K’s situation it became evident that being Kafka-esque is a unique style.

As a whole, I’m not overly convinced it’s a book you can say you enjoy; perhaps more so, you appreciate the reflections it throws onto our own traditions and cultural values, and how far stretched these can be in order to accommodate despotic rules. It’s an odd one to classify as dystopian, with this label being the main reason I read it – there’s no hyperbolic display of power, no dramatic realisation of corruption and revolution on the part of the protagonist. Much like his trial, Josef K’s narrative plods along, taking everything as it comes and dealing with situations methodically and according to the warped judicial system. In some ways, this makes it a trial to read (try to forgive the pun), but at other points the insights and epigrams it provides on our own willingness to settle for what we see as ‘the right way’ are revelatory and, in this respect, gently intimidating, much as Josef K’s original detainers were. Maybe that’s the point, that we’re supposed to be subtly haunted rather than outwardly shocked and indignant as other dystopian fiction does.

Another distinction is surely that there are no sympathetic characters in this, they’re almost all parodies – the corrupt law man, the overly-sexualised women, the dithering fool in the middle not knowing how to play the system…Josef K I almost find repellant in his attitude; he’s contradictory, easily led but posture himself as strong-willed, and is just a very slippery character. It’s appropriate that we never find out his alleged crime, because the speculation over what a civil servant, a slave to corporate life and rules, could possibly have done wrong is part of the ridiculousness of the situation. We never find out why his story concludes in the way it does, just that despite every conceivable route to the outcome, he has been treated ‘like a dog’, left to the mercy of his owners, the government and the court.

A lot of the situations and characters are contradictory though, and this part of the narrative style is perhaps indicative of the circulatory situation of this society, and how nothing can ever be stable when nothing is transparent. Relationships, civil structures, rules and regulations are all fluid and changeable; look at Josek K and Leni moving from lust to hatred within mere seconds because of the fickle nature of her affections. Part of this is that sexual relations are the only way to advance in the world – the physical commands mental processes and progressions, again reducing the moral codes we live by to something that changes depending on who is willing to help you out, so to speak. It’s a confusing social order, further adding to the farcical nature of something being labelled a ‘trial’ when it has no order or structure – the duplicitous nature of the trial as social restraint and the trial as personal torture is seen in society’s inability to figure out the legal system and it’s trip hazards.

‘The Trial’ is worth reading if only to examine how far we understand our own legal systems and how we’re being judged and monitored in a society where knowledge remains faceless. Considering this novel was written in 1925, it’s resonance with the complexities of our own social situations and governance is haunting, with the prevailing insight of Kafka’s work to be that we have little insight into our own systems, and ultimately this is a frightening position to be in.

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One thought on “Review: ‘The Trial’ by Franz Kafka

  1. I am not convinced that this book will zoom to the top of my must-read list any time soon. Great review, it just might save me several hours of dark contemplation!

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