by Franz Kafka
“It’s only because of their stupidity that they’re able to be so sure of themselves.”
Joseph K. is accused of a crime and arrested, though he is unable to find out what he has been accused of due to obfuscating rules and an encumbered legal system. His trial unfolds over the course of a year as he remains free enough to visit lawyers, prepare documentation and attempt to learn about his case while his job and his life suffers.
A few surreal elements crop up, and near the end the story morphs into a kind of parable. It’s important to note this book was not finished and was originally published in Germany in 1925, a year after the author’s death. Specifically, at the end of chapter 8 during a conversation with Joseph’s lawyer, the note appears, “This chapter was left unfinished.”
Nevertheless, many consider The Trial Kafka’s masterpiece, though we find the novel The Castle and the short story “Metamorphosis” also in the running. Be warned, the book is a wall of text.
In some ways this is the ultimate horror story. Arrested and on trial without knowing why is a possibility we’ve made legal here with the Patriot Act, where prisoners can be held indefinitely, a provision which was set to expire but was instead renewed a few years ago. This position, combined with other elements such as our government’s mass data collection and overwhelming military might, makes Big Brother from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four look like a scared little boy.
“Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both.”
-Benjamin Franklin, 1755 (many versions of this quote exist, the best using Leonard Nimoy’s voice from the PC strategy game Civilization IV)
Additionally, we have a election approaching later this year which is shaping up be to a spectacle never before seen in American politics. Grumblings are sprouting of martial law should riots reach the point some are projecting as the event approaches, and we have vitriol flying across the board from people sick of the status quo of criminal politicians and from those deathly afraid of an ego-maniacal madman in the top seat.
“Democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”
-Winston Churchill, 1947
Despite this, despite the fact our lives are run by a cabal of professional liars, cheaters and thieves, we live in a country where it’s OK to talk about these things. It should, must, and will continue to be OK to air dissent, to be free to express our opinions on leadership, and that is no small thing. Government as a necessary evil is not a new concept, and the idea of it dealt with on a smaller, local scale in The Trial doesn’t make it an easier pill to swallow, with bureaucracy frustrating our main character until his sanity is threatened. But there is a key in the text, a lesson we can take away after absorbing the novel.
Voltaire proved with his philosophical Candide that life is not what you make it. Kafka examines the issue from a different angle, and resolves a different but not incompatible conclusion:
Life will do to you what you allow it to.
“And does the trial start over again?” asked K., finding it hard to believe.
“The trial will always start over again.”