Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Book: The Trial by Franz Kafka

The Trial is certainly one of the darkest novels I have read. A haunting account of a citizen's travails at the hands of an unjust government and its institutions. Hailed as one of the best novels of the twentieth century, this novel was completed exactly hundred years ago (1915), although published a few years later (1925) after the death of the author Franz Kafka.

Leaving aside the deeper philosophical concepts for which the novel is often cited, like Absurdism, and Existentialism, even to a lay reader the narrative raises questions about justice, violence, and authority. Through the story of a man unjustly persecuted, the novel provides a satirical, ironical view of the system.

There are several themes that run through the novel but the theme of justice and judgment particularly appealed to me. It is possible that some of the descriptions of the Court and related things could be metaphors for something other than law. Yet, you cannot but marvel at the eerie depiction of a modern citizen trapped in a bureaucracy controlled by shadowy procedures.

The events described unfold in a European city, a hundred years ago. The political system, the court system, it is all obviously different back then. Yet, what is universal is that 'law is an abstract thing' and  'the Court is the human embodiment' of the law. As a system run by human beings, law becomes subject to corruption. Kafka portrays that corruption of the courts quite brilliantly in Chapter 7. This definitely is the chapter that I liked best.

Here are some excerpts from the Chapter 7. In these sections, Titorelli the painter who has some inside connections with the courts, advises Joseph K. the novel's protagonist on the court proceedings-

"...There are three possibilities, that is, definite acquittal, ostensible acquittal, and indefinite postponement. Definite acquittal is, of course the best, but I haven't the slightest influence on that kind of verdict. As far as I know, there is no single person who could influence the verdict of definite acquittal. The only deciding factor seems to be the innocence of the accused..."(page 167)

" We must distinguish between two things: what is written in the Law, and what I have discovered through personal experience; you must not confuse the two. In the code of the Law, which admittedly I have not read, it is of course laid down on the one hand that the innocent shall be acquitted, but it is not stated on the other hand that the Judges are open to influence. Now, my experience is diametrically opposed to that. I have not met one case of definite acquittal, and I have met many cases of influential intervention..." (page 168)

"Ostensible acquittal and indefinite postponement" said the painter. "...the difference between them is that ostensible acquittal demands temporary concentration, while postponement taxes your strength less but means a steady strain. First, then, let us take ostensible acquittal. If you decide on that, I shall write down on a sheet of paper an affidavit of your innocence."
" is not in the least certain that every Judge will believe me; some Judges, for instance will ask to see you in the person. And then I should have to take you with me to call on them. Though when that happens the battle is already half won, particularly as I should tell you beforehand, of course, exactly what line to take with each Judge."
"...I shall then deliver it to the Judge who is actually conducting your trial. Possibly I may have secured his signature too, then everything will be settled fairly soon..." (page 172)

"...The Judge is covered by the guarantees of the other Judges subscribing to the affidavit, and so he can grant an acquittal with an easy mind, and though some formalities will remain to be settled, he will undoubtedly grant the acquittal to please me and his other friends.Then you can walk out of the Court a free man."

"...but only ostensibly free, or more exactly, provisionally free. For the Judges of the lowest grade, to whom my acquaintances belong, haven't the power to grant a final acquittal, that power is reserved for the highest Court of all, which is quite inaccessible to you, to me, and to all of us."

"...The great privilege, then, of absolving from guilt our Judges do not possess, but they do have the right to take the burden of the charge off your shoulders. That is to say, when you are acquitted in this fashion the charge is lifted from your shoulders for the time being, but it continues to hover above you  and can, as soon as an order comes from on high, be laid upon you again."

"...In definite acquittal the documents relating to the case are said to be completely annulled, they simply vanish from sight, not only the charge but also the records of the case and even the acquittal are destroyed, everything is destroyed. That's not the case with ostensible acquittal. The documents remain as they were, except that the affidavit is added to them and a record of the acquittal and the grounds for granting it. The whole dossier continues to circulate, as the regular official routine demands, passing on to the higher Courts, being referred to the lower ones again, and thus swinging backwards and forwards with greater or smaller oscillations, longer or shorter delays. These peregrinations are incalculable."

"...No document is ever lost, the Court never forgets anything. One day - quite unexpectedly - some Judge will take up the documents and look at them attentively, recognize that in this case the charge is still valid, and order an immediate arrest. I have been speaking on the assumption that a long time elapses between the ostensible acquittal and the new arrest; that is possible and I have known of such cases, but it is just possible for the acquitted man to go straight home from the Court and find officers already waiting to arrest him again. Then, of course, all his freedom is at an end."

"The case begins all over again, but again it is possible, just as before, to secure an ostensible acquittal. One must again apply all one's energies to the case and never give in." (pages 173-174)

"Ostensible acquittal doesn't seem to appeal to you, said the painter. Perhaps postponement would suit you better..." (page 175)

"Postponement consists in preventing the case from ever getting any further than its first stages. To achieve that it is necessary for the accused and his agent, but more particularly his agent, to remain continuously in personal touch with the Court. Let me point out again that this does not demand such intense concentration of one's energies as an ostensible acquittal, yet on the other hand it does require far greater vigilance. You daren't let the case out of your sight, you visit the Judge at regular intervals as well as in emergencies and must do all that is in your power to keep him friendly; if you don't know the Judge personally, then you must try to influence him through the other Judges whom you do know, but without giving up your efforts to secure a personal interview. If you neglect none of these things, then you can assume with fair certainty that the case will never pass beyond its first stages. Not that the proceedings are quashed, but the accused is almost as likely to escape sentence as if he were free. As against ostensible acquittal postponement has this advantage, that the future of the accused is less uncertain, he is secured from the terrors of sudden arrest and doesn't need to undergo - perhaps at a most inconvenient moment - the strain and agitation which are inevitable in the achievement of ostensible acquittal. Though, postponement, too, has certain drawbacks for the accused, and these must not be minimized. In saying this I am not thinking of the fact that the accused is never free; he isn't free either in any real sense, after the ostensible acquittal. There are the other drawbacks. The case can't be held up indefinitely without at least some plausible grounds being provided. So as a matter of form a certain activity must be shown from time to time, various measured have to be taken, the accused is questioned, evidence is collected, and so on. For the case must be kept going all the time, although only in the small circle to which it has been artificially restricted. This naturally involves the accused in occasional unpleasantness, but you must not think of it as being too unpleasant. For it's all a formality, the interrogations, for instance, are only short ones; if you have neither the time nor the inclination to go, you can excuse yourself; with some Judges you can even plan your interviews a long time ahead, all that it amounts to is a formal recognition of your status as an accused man by regular appearances before your Judge." (pages 175-177)

The novel is available online for free at the following site-
The Online Literature Library

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