In Franz Kafka’s novel, The Trial, a man named Josef K. (referred to simply as “K.” throughout the book) is arrested on charges that are never explained to him by a court that is shrouded in mystery, presided over by judges that wield seemingly arbitrary power, and in which lawyers and agents of the court appear to be experts in obfuscation. K. attempts to live his life like normal in the midst of this odd ordeal, per the instructions of the court, but the ever-looming trial haunts and torments him, pulling him further and further into the depths of the system’s insanity. Ultimately, K. is taken out by two agents of the court and executed with a knife.
This is a strange, frustrating, but intriguing and provocative tale. The genius of Kafka was in creating mysterious, nightmarish tales that are open to various interpretations. There is an absurdity about this story that is terrifying because it evokes the absurdity of life as we oftentimes actually encounter it.
The story left me with many questions. What is the trial? Is K. Kafka and is this a psychological or spiritual autobiography? Is this a story about religion? If Kafka saying that life itself is a strange trial the rules of which are never made clear to us, that God is the ominous Judge before whom we are somehow guilty and from whom we can never escape? Is it a story about government, its power over man, its stifling and absurdist bureaucracy and labyrinthine red-tape, or is it simply a commentary on the suffocating, vicious underbelly of society and its power structures? Is the trial more personal, a projection of Kafka’s own sense of being trapped in something he cannot possibly begin to understand, of being doomed by ominous forces outside of his control? Is this an ode to existential despair, pessimism, nihilism even?
Is the key to the story to be found in the final words (or what appear to be the final words – Kafka never finished and polished the story, and fragments remain, but this appears to be the conclusion), K.’s final observation at the moment of his murder as the knife is plunged into him: “Like a dog”? Does that mean that Kafka’s tale is about how the maddening and nonsensical dynamics of life that we find ourselves trapped in eventually succeed in robbing us of our dignity and our humanity, that they reduce us to animals, “like a dog”?
There is a despair about this story that is unsettling, that somehow resonates with much that we experience in life. It is reminiscent of Solomon’s more pessimistic musings in the book of Ecclesiastes, yet without the overarching hope of God’s deliverance.
This is a book to read more than once, but likely with some time in between. I suppose the genius of Kafka is that he taps into the human sense of angst that all of us, at times feel. I was drawn to and repelled by this story.
K.’s conversation with the priest in the cathedral had the most overtly theological (or theodical?) tone to it, and there I was close to concluding that this story is an accusation against God, that, in reality, The Trial is putting God on trial. But I am not sure. I fluctuated between thinking that and thinking that The Trial is simply life itself and its penchant for absurdist, inescapable dehumanization. In that view, it is not unlike his story, The Metamorphosis [which I reviewed here].
I’m not sure what to say in terms of recommendation. I can imagine many folks not liking this story at all. But if you would like to see an attention-grabbing exercise in existential anxiety, and if you enjoy trying to decipher literary riddles, you should probably check this out.