To enter the world of Franz Kafka's The Trial and The Castle you need first of all mental stamina; a willingness to plough through seemingly endless pages of non-paragraphed text as infinitely dense and complex as Kafka's mysterious bureaucracies. The writing style (reading the English translation) is unadorned and dry, even slightly dull, adding to the difficulties. But for those able to stay the course, rich rewards await.
It's fashionable to call Kafka's novels comedies and no doubt the Monty Python like absurdities of his power structures give that impression; but it's more fruitful in my opinion to see them as cerebral horror stories. Joseph K in The Trial awakes one morning and finds himself arrested by an immense judicial organisation, for a crime that remains unknown to him. The character K. in The Castle likewise is confronted by an impenetrable bureaucracy on entering a village to take up a land surveying position; but the illusive Castle authorities overlooking the village, due to almost incomprehensible communication errors between the castle and the village, proclaim that after all a land surveyor is no longer needed. K.'s hopeless appeals to the authorities reduce him bit by bit to outcast status. As in the horror genre the two protagonists in the novels face an inexplicable alien force; not vampires, werewolves or Lovecraftian monstrosities, but irrational systems of human design.
The Trial is one of the 100 best horror books in Horror: 100 Best Books, edited by Stephen Jones and Kim Newman. Steve Rasnic Tem writes:
"No modern novel captures the sense of a waking nightmare better than Kafka's The Trial."
"Although not the first work to use such techniques, The Trial has at least indirectly influenced much of modern horror fiction. Joseph K.'s environment alternatively convinces us with its realism and then is fantastically transformed so that K. is able to see his buried obsessions acted out by the people and city around him. His confidence in reality is thus eroded: this is a harbinger of the paranoid landscapes of such writers as Ramsey Campbell* and Dennis Etchison."
Unease pervades Kafka's nightmares rather then the overwrought terror of H.P. Lovecraft's classic tales. The two K.'s are locked into an elaborate anxiety dream with the verisimilitude of real life; a dream without end or any possibility of waking up. These novels concern themselves with alienation, of isolation from the community; in The Castle, except for K., a stranger and outsider, nearly everyone in the village overlooked by the impenetrable castle has a place however lowly in the hierarchy. They take for granted the bizarre ordering of the bureaucracy; even revere its mysterious officials.
There are sequences however of nightmarish dislocation bordering on the supernatural, straight out of a tale of terror. In The Trial, Joseph K, overburdened with the sheer immensity of his predicament, utterly exhausted, his work as an assistant bank manager suffering, visits the painter Titorelli, who may have some tiny influence over the judges and clerks of the court. Titorelli lives in an attic room, like a wooden box, on a run down tenement block, harassed by impoverished children. Overwhelmed by the stifling heat, the painter's descriptions of the labyrinthine complexity of the court and the utter impossibility of his situation, Joseph K escapes from the room via a small door, pursued by the ragged children. But instead of finding a continuation of the housing estate, he is back once more in the airless corridors of the court house. For me this is one of the most chilling sections in any work of fiction, horror or otherwise.
But most frightening of all are Joseph K's and K's own acknowledgment of the legitimacy of the illogical construction of their worlds. Both of them (like nearly every one of us) view their social environments as normal. They rebel in a disgruntled way at the irrational injustices; they appeal to the authorities without success and in many instances make their situations worse. They internalise irrational power, regarding it as part and parcel of reality; as real and unchangeable as the sky. The genius of Kafka, elevating him above a mere humorist or fantasist is the relationship between his imaginary but personal universe and the early 21st Century. That other visionary, J.G. Ballard writes in the Sunday Times (1993):
Kafka may be the most important writer of the twentieth century, far more important than James Joyce. He describes the fate of the isolated man who is surrounded by a vast and impenetrable bureaucracy, and begins to accept himself on the terms the bureaucracy imposes. Human beings today are in a very similar position. We are surrounded by huge institutions we can never penetrate: the City, the banking system, political and advertising conglomerates, vast entertainment empires. They've made themselves more user-friendly, but they define the tastes to which we conform. They're rather subtle, subservient tyrannies, but no less sinister for that.**
So for a libertarian leftist, for someone who wishes to dismantle hierarchy, Kafka has much to tell us about authority in today's world; not a power centred on a clearly visible dictatorial leader or totalitarian state but a bewildering interlocking nexus of diffuse powers as irrational to any outsider as the bureaucracies of The Trial and The Castle. We are reduced to the position of K, pleading for justice, respect and recognition, but are ignored and humiliated. We instinctively understand the nexus as incomprehensible and thus irrational, but sink further into apathy and exhaustion, accepting the huge absurdity almost like a part of the natural world.
We are all K.
* Re-reading Kafka brought to mind another influence that may have guided Ramsey Campbell, while writing The Grin of the Dark, which I did not mention in my review of the book. The narrator, who may be succumbing to madness, is as alienated from the people around him and in a similar position of isolation as K. in Kafka's novels. The same dislocation of space arises throughout, especially in the Amsterdam sequence.
**From A User's Guide To The Millennium: Essays & Reviews by J.G. Ballard (edited by David Pringle)
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