"Trial" is a word which is a cornucopia of meaning: (a)
examination of evidence and applicable law by a tribunal, i.e. a 'court trial,' (b)
the act or process of testing, trying, or putting to proof, (c)
an instance of such testing, (d)
an effort or attempt, (e)
a state of pain or anguish that tests patience, endurance or belief - all of these definitions pertain to Franz Kafka's The Trial
. Of course, as appropriate the title is in many senses, it too is heavily loaded with irony; a "trial," which is to say formal litigation, never occurs, it is withheld from K. at every turn and attempt to receive one - and begs the question: is it better to have an unfair trial than no trial at all?
The adjectival tribute to the author, "Kafkaesque" hearkens to this novel in particular, as a representation of the "nightmarishly complex, bizarre, or illogical quality" of much of Kafka's larger oeuvre, with a particular emphasis on the application to bureaucracy. In fact, a suiting, though less abundantly ironic, subtitle for this novel could be as easily "Schreckgespenst
," or "Nightmare" - as the blend of the surreal and macabre, routine and disruption, and recursive reduction to the absurd creates an haunted dreamscape for the reader. Reinforcing this idea of a dream, or nightmare, is that, like in Kafka's The Metamorphosis
, the initial enigmatic action is foregone, and the result is thrust upon our confused protagonist as he is jarred from sleep: "Someone must have been telling lies about Josef K., he knew he had done nothing wrong but, one morning, he was arrested.
" Note the parallel to "One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible insect.
" Are the horrifying and unusual occurances of these stories merely bad dreams, a second layer down, a "dream within a dream"? Or is waking life the horrid dream, of which sleep is a fleeting escape? The Trial
is not explicit, though it seems to indicate the validity of both, with the nihilistic cynicism of the latter.
The story follows K., our reductively named protagonist, from his violent arousal from sleep, told of his arrest, through a complex maze of bureaucracy and paradox, strange characters and occurrences, as K. attempts to have his trial held where he can at least learn of what he is accused. Even arriving at the court is a labyrinthine effort, while learning his transgression is an impossibility. Furthermore, there is a loneliness to K., one which I think parallels the solitude of an artist or particularly of an author. Everyone but K. takes the world at face-value, the courtly rigmarole is discussed with a chilling sangfroid, and seemingly counterinuitive advice is doled with poised complicity with the absurd system. K. alone questions, K. alone wonders, K. alone seems concerned with truth
, with justice
, while the ghosts which populate his world concern themselves only with the Process
). K. suffers doubly for his inquisitive mind: the suffering of false conviction and the suffering for his barred access to truth. Instead of getting closer and closer to the truth, each attempt proves impotent, each person he meets cannot comply or cannot offer him what he needs. The priest, perhaps the novel's most enigmatically self-aware figure - at once enlightening and withholding - tells K.:
"No," said the priest, "you don't need to accept everything as true, you only have to accept it as necessary." "Depressing view," said K. "The lie made into the rule of the world."
It is a distinctly drab view of the world to take "not everything as true but as necessary" - and it is a sharp critique of religion, which boasts of inaccessible truth, but demands complicity. To the author/artist, or merely thinker, nothing can be taken as necessity without also being aligned with truth: such is thinking. It is inhuman not to think, to forgo our own judgments and the blindly take the judgments of another. However, that is precisely what denatured men do, and maybe all humans are somewhat denatured, taking some things granted, while turning over others to no end. No one is a Hamlet, dissecting everything.
The world of The Trial
is at times a distant nightmare and a haunting reality to us. In reading it we find the absurd, the impossible, the flagrant miscarriage of justice, we find a beautiful ugliness in fiction. But after reading it, after immersing your consciousness in Kafka's other realm, a realm so closely tied and yet so distantly held at bay, we see around us a convergence of the two realms. We see in bosses odd decisions, we see in our friends poor judgments, we see in the news a chaos upheld by its own inertia, its own self-orbit. While we may not define these "Kafkaesque," it is in the spirit of Kafka that we ponder them, that we hold them in front of our eyes an extra moment to wonder with interest and disgust.