When you get used to reading inferior books, even a nibble of a great masterpiece can challenge your digestive system in ways that cause stomach cramps. Franz Kafka is no light read. After a diet of heavily processed modern literature, Franz Kafka’s The Trial is as hard to digest as a meal of wholegrain rice and raw vegetables would be to a junk food aficionado. And yet like its gastronomical equivalent, Kafka’s prose stays with you and nourishes you much longer.
Though hard to digest, The Trial is not hard to chew. The prose is in fact deceptively accessible, inviting the reader into a world that is familiar enough, and well rendered enough, to suspend one’s disbelief, despite the many incongruities that make that world so intriguing and so mysterious. This, indeed, is the fine art of surrealism: To lure the reader with hyper-realistically crafted descriptions into the acceptance of things he might otherwise dismiss as simply absurd.
But unlike, say, a Magritte painting, Kafka’s Trial does not stop at flaunting absurdity. Instead, it takes the reader well beyond the ridiculous into something far more dangerous, as we accompany Joseph K., our middle-aged protagonist, on his descent into insanity. We begin our journey in his bedroom, following him into the bank at which he holds a mid-ranking position, into a farcical courtroom and through the various sordid relationships that belie his repressed sexuality. At no point are we sure of what is truly real and what is a projection of his mental illness. Yet the quality of the prose is such that we can glimpse through the cracks in the protagonist’s madness the light of a more solid world; one that is just beyond his grasp, the existence of which is indispensable for us to appreciate what Joseph K. is experiencing.
The narrative device which Kafka uses to set up this surreality is the bureaucracy of a modern judicial system. This is particularly effective for any reader who has had the displeasure of knowing the vagaries of an inefficient and often self-contradictory public administration; in particular, the infuriating functioning of the legal system. Bureaucracies really are insane, which makes it all the easier for us to accept what Joseph K. is going through. Yet we are reminded at regular intervals that this device is only a metaphor, and that the trial, the court which hosts it and the many court attendants we meet throughout the story, are all of the protagonist’s own making.
It’s possible, if one reads about Kafka’s life, to draw parallels and seek explanations for this or that aspect of the book. But I feel doing so adds nothing to the reader’s experience. My best advice is to sit down at the table, clear your palate and take small and deliberate bites.
But be prepared to spend a lot of time digesting.