Dog Bite Degustation: Kafka's "The Trial"

on Thursday, May 6, 2010
It is nearly impossible for anyone writing about Franz Kafka to separate the author and his work from the sycophantic hype that surrounds them. As I wrote in a previous post, he has become the Che Guevara of the literary world - a symbol far removed from his reality, feted as much through projection as reason. Visionary. Prophet. Peddler of existential terror. However he is rolled out for popular consumption, his legend is unassailable. And yes, just like the motorbike-riding revolutionary, you can find his image on any number of tacky household items.

I have the unfortunate added difficulty of separating Kafka's books from the weight of nostalgia that accompanies his every word. He was my grandfather's favourite writer, a bridge between generations and, indeed in our case, worlds. I was first introduced to his work when I was accepted into law school sixteen years ago. Grandpa gave me his tattered old Penguin copy of The Trial from 1953 and told me it was essential reading for anyone contemplating life as a lawyer. "Actually, for anyone," he corrected himself. I still have that copy in the drawer of my bedside table. I still flick through it occasionally, its pages torn in half, transformed by the depredations of time into a literary mobius strip. Or flip-book. If I weren't so afraid of destroying this fragile relic, I'd probably enjoy experimenting with it, trying to recreate the story through mismatched half pages.

I have probably read The Trial six or seven times over the years in various translations and editions. Until it was somehow knocked off its perch by For The Good Of The Cause in 2008, I considered it my favourite book of all time for the better part of fifteen years. When Breon Mitchell reinvigorated the novel with his translation of the restored text, I burst with glee. Mitchell presents Josef K. in the most ordinary light of all the versions I've read. K is a working stiff. He chases tail, often to his great detriment. He sees the process as an affront to his dignity rather than some horror visited upon him. The Josef K of Mitchell's translation is the man to whom we can all best relate. From my understanding, it is how Kafka wanted us to know him. Therefore it is Mitchell's translation which I have chosen to revisit this month for the Dog Bite Degustation challenge.

I am glad to report that, unlike the Solzhenitsyn, my love for this book has not faded. Each reading brings with it new perspectives, new delights. When I studied the book at university in Professor Graewe's fantastic German Literature class, I mounted an argument for it as a religious allegory for the Jewish rites of passage, particularly Bar Mitzvah (I also claimed that my grandfather sat next to Kafka in synagogue in the twenties, but that's a whole other story). A few years later I saw it as some sort of fabulous attack on inflexible doctrinal legalism. I now see a host of other possible meanings. In Mitchell's translation one not only finds the crushing terror of bureaucratic injustice but a fine vein of humour to boot. Sometimes, Kafka appears to suggest, you just have to laugh at the predicament in which you find yourself. It is a prescient lesson for our times.

I will always feel indebted to my grandfather for introducing me to The Trial. He claimed not to fully understand it, which as an eighteen year old kid I found a bit silly. Only now, with the benefit of proper reflection do I get what he meant. If only to gain insight into the way in which law privileges itself over reason, this book is worth reading. The chapter on the machinations of the often invisible but omni-present system is one of the most complex, yet engaging, pieces of literature ever committed to paper. And the priest's parable, published elsewhere as the short story "Before The Law" is truly dazzling. I could go on forever. Read The Trial as allegory, as metafiction, as an existential thriller, even as a comedy. Just leave yourself time to read it again and again. Every time it will be as if you are reading it anew.


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