The Trial

Franz Kafka's signature

A good book, a bad book, a “love it or hate it” book.  It takes some willpower for me to review Franz Kafka‘s The Trial as objectively as possible, but I must give it a mixed-feelings rating of 3.3 out of 5 stars.

I believe I began reading this book last fall, before putting it aside for months and then finishing it recently.  It’s the sort of book you can resume at any moment–because, apart from the beginning and the end, nothing happens.  I learned nothing and was intrigued.  It’s evidently deep but reads like light summer reading.  It’s a good book to read in public, because it will hold your interest despite distractions.

In a nutshell:  The Trial is about a guy who, one fine morning, gets “arrested” for unknown reasons.  And by “arrest”, it is not a “go directly to jail” arrest or even a house arrest–nothing so clear-cut and reassuring.  And “the Trial” is not about a trial in the typical sense, but about the trials Josef K. suffers just trying to get to the bottom of it.  Keyword:  trying.

Having been awed by The Metamorphosis, I am hesitant to write The Trial off as pure nonsense.  In both of these works, I believe Kafka exaggerated and examined the paranoia, corruption, and bizarre situations in real life to make a point, or to at least bring them to people’s attention.  The sudden, unexpected, strange moments of our lives when people are incomprehensible, when society seems ridiculous, aloof, vulgar, perhaps crazy–this is a huge aspect of the Kafkaesque, the meat-and-potatoes of Kafka’s themes in The Trial.  The oddities of everyday life and the mind-numbingly tedious, unbelievable processes that are necessary for things to be accomplished in a legal system (this is not entirely fantasy either–think of how many years, even decades, it can take for a person to legally become a U.S. citizen!).  Kafka appeared to be haunted by these things; how much of it arose from just his own perspective, I can only conjecture.  I think he emphasized many truths people don’t often think about, but you have to wonder at what point do the obscure truths stop and the imagination begins.

The other highlight of The Trial is what might be called “Kafka logic.”  In this book, it’s something like a mixture of math, Alice in Wonderland, and arguments.  Different characters ramble on and on and on about Josef’s case; my favorite was the lawyer’s monologue in Chapter 7, a prime example of how to optimistically give depressing news.  I personally enjoy reading about “Kafka logic”; again, it seems to me to depict some real-life truths in a very remarkable way.

Unfortunately, the protagonist “Josef K.” is the thorn in the side of his own book.  Like the “K.” of Kafka’s The Castle (which I have not finished yet), Josef comes across as an ultimately spineless, hypocritical, gullible loser.  Josef’s biggest enemy is his own anxiety–much like Richard in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House–and while I sympathized with him at first, it seemed to me later that he could have conquered his anxieties by simply trying to live a normal life and keeping busy with his work.  Instead, he drives himself crazy trying to outsmart the system, while still finding time to have romantic relationships with total strangers (despite condemning the judges as “woman-chasers”).  Josef doesn’t even have the guts to get out of long, boring, painful conversations with people who are unable or unwilling to help him.  Spoiler in white:  At the end, he is about to commit suicide, before he is murdered (or executed, depending on how you look at it).  His last words are to feel sorry for his hurt pride.  Pathetic. 

The other characters comprise one of the creepiest sets of characters I’ve ever come across.  There is “the whip-man”, the most blatantly sinister.  The others give the appearance of being nice, but most are conniving, hostile, or simply apathetic.  The majority are either realistically unpleasant or cardboard cutouts literally devoid of personality.

Due to Josef’s “love life” and the shocking ending, I would say this book is for older readers (17+).  I don’t recommend it necessarily.  Give The Metamorphosis a try, and if you dislike it, I can almost guarantee you’ll hate this book.  On the other hand, if you are fascinated by the Kafkaesque, you’ll find plenty of that in The Trial.

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