The Trial

by Franz Kafka

Rating: ★★★★

The Trial is, at least on the surface, a story about a man, K, who wakes up one day, 'arrested' for a crime. His assailants offer no authority or identification, do not tell him of what crime he is accused (only that he is accused), and see no need that his arrest should interfere with his daily business all that much. They later summon him to an interrogation in an attic, where his complaints about the poor state of this arrest and trial are well-received by a crowd all wearing the same badge, but no further information is forthcoming. Persuaded by his uncle that the case is of some importance, he takes on an Advocate who seems to do almost nothing, endlessly delaying submission of his first plea while delivering trivial admonishments over his impatience. K learns from various sources that an acquittal is only theoretically attainable, and that in some way he must constantly be attending to his case. The story ends with K. being summarily executed (though not without his own aid) by people who seem in some way connected to the case, though no judgement was ever passed on him.

Some early parts of the book annoyed me, as I couldn't understand how K. was acting in a few scenes. I actually turned to my partner and said (paraphrasing, of course) "I don't get why K. is paying any attention to them. If it were me, when they summoned me to this court, without having identified themselves, charged me or shown any actual authority, I'd have ignored the summons." In reflection, that's quite amusing (well, to me, anyway). The story turns out to be an allegory for Christian/Judean religion, with its assumption of unspecified guilt, and my attitude towards the situation in the book seems to pretty well match my attitude towards religion in real life.

The allegory side of the story is actually beautifully woven in. At the time, I didn't get it, it's only in reflection that I pick up on all sorts of details, such as the painter's description of the character of the 'Judges', the way the Advocate and his handling of cases so well represents the nature of priests, and the description of a system which nobody really seems to understand, stuffed with contradictory rules, which only people newly 'accused' seem to suggest any improvement to.

There are a few things I don't like. Aside from his landlady, the female characters seem to exist solely for K to become attracted to at the drop of a hat (and vice-versa). Some of the early conversations (leaving aside the ones about the arrest) are bewildering in the flaring emotions and indecisiveness of the protagonist. Several times, his reaction to the officers of the Court enraged me (he didn't ask the right questions! Or if he did, he allowed himself to be deflected). All in all, though, the richness of metaphorical detail makes this an excellent bit of writing to puzzle your way through.