The Czech writer Franz Kafka, whose works have just been reissued in a new translation, painted a nightmare world of legal injustice that has resonances today, almost a century on. Sinead Kennedy looks at the politics of this disturbing but profoundly
The Trial, perhaps Franz Kafka’s finest literary accomplishment, draws us into the strange and yet oddly familiar world of its protagonist, Josef K.
We are with him when he is arrested, when he goes to his first interrogation, when he meets his lawyer, when he is executed. Kafka conveys Josek K’s terrifying sense of being trapped, a pawn in the control of the powerful and mysterious Court.
Most of The Trial was written in 1914 during the first months of the First World War. Kafka never finished the novel, considering it hopelessly “bungled”. It remained unpublished at his death ten years later.
The Trial is the story of a man arrested without having done anything wrong, never formally charged with a crime, but continually harassed, persecuted and finally executed like a dog. It has since come to represent the fate of countless victims of political and legal injustice.
Kafka was born in 1883, a subject of the Austro-Hungarian empire in Prague. He died a citizen of Czechoslovakia on the outskirts of Vienna, Austria, in 1924.
The Jewish Europe that Kafka was born into would be radically transformed in the course of the next 50 years. The Austro-Hungarian empire collapsed at the end of the First World War, an event that rewrote the map of central Europe.
Kafka’s Prague disappeared behind the Iron Curtain, where his work was banned. The Nazi Holocaust claimed the lives of his three sisters and many of his friends. And while Kafka did not live to see all this, the tensions and communal anxieties fuelling that destruction had already shaped both him and his writing.
Kafka was not a political writer in the way that, say, the German playwright Bertolt Brecht was. He was not involved in political activity and never set out any clear set of beliefs.
In fact the very idea that Kafka is a political writer – never mind a writer who offers a radical critique of society and its institutions – has long been contentious.
Marxist literary critics in particular have been deeply divided over Kafka.
You can see a similar divergence in Marxist criticism regarding other literary modernists, such as Samuel Beckett, James Joyce and Marcel Proust. But it is around Kafka’s writing that many of the key literary debates about modernism and realism have crystallised.
One reason for this is that Kafka’s work came to prominence at the same time that Stalinists were advancing the doctrine of “socialist realism”. This is the notion that left wing artists should stick to naturalistic and positive portraits of working class life, and steer clear of abstraction or avant garde styles.
Kafka, along with other modernists, was accused of “excessive formalism”. He was charged with creating an alienated vision of reality where people were transformed from active participants in history to clinical observers – and where reality was reduced to unintelligible chaos.
But other Marxists argued that Kafka’s work should be seen in a different light. His novels and short stories were not just an unreflecting expression of disorientation and despair, they argued, but a finely observed critique of power and the alienation of modern capitalism.
Theodor Adorno described Kafka’s writing as “a reaction to unlimited power”. Kafka’s work articulates the modern human condition, he said, where human beings are forced to endure the random cruelty of existence – an existence we are unable to understand, yet are condemned to live in.
In Kafka, simple and unemotional sentences narrate the most incredible, outrageous events as if nothing were out of the ordinary. For instance, in The Metamorphosis, his most famous short story, a man is turned into a giant cockroach in his own bed – and the story unfolds with perfect plausibility.
Another short story, In The Penal Colony, tells of a traveller who visits a French prison camp. He is shown an execution machine that not only puts prisoners to death, but inscribes on their bodies the text of the law they have broken. Language itself becomes history and politics.
What is most chilling in the story is the traveller’s response to the machine – he is not horrified, just curious. In the case that is about to be concluded, the words to be written are “Honour thy superiors!”.
The prisoner cannot speak French and the traveller asks the officer in charge if the prisoner knows his sentence. The officer replies that he does not, but adds smiling, “There would be no point in telling him. He’ll learn it on his body.”
When the traveller inquires about the prisoner’s defence, the officer replies that in the colony an accusation of guilt is enough. The parallels with our own world are obvious.
Kafka’s heroes search for truth in a world of alienation, irrationality and injustice. They submit and endure and try to explain the inexplicable.
But if, as Kafka tells us, truth always ends as it begins, in the inexplicable, can any hope for a better future exist? It is this sense of despair and pessimism in Kafka that has long provoked unease on the left.
But perhaps we misunderstand the nature of hope. In his letters, Kafka writes of listening to “the frightened voices from within”, as it is these fears that form a path to truth.
But for Kafka fear is “not only fear” – it is “also a longing for something which is more than all the things which produce fear”. If Kafka’s work is to be understood as political, it is a politics based on ethics and commitment to one’s fellow human beings.
New translations of Kafka’s work have just been published by Penguin Classics. Phone Bookmarks on 020 7637 1848 for details