The Advent of Bureaucratic Totalitarianism Juxtaposed with an Existential Tale

“After all, they’re discussing things they don’t understand. Their confidence is based solely on ignorance. A few words spoken with someone of my own sort will make everything incomparably clearer than the longest conversations with these two.”

– Franz Kafka, The Trial

Dystopian literature is everywhere. Be it George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four or Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451tales of completely unpleasant, totalitarian, and even abhorrent worlds have doubtless influenced world literature, and have certainly inspired countless authors to this day (I’m looking at you, Suzanne Collins). This genre of literature has not only affected the way we perceive the world today, but also leaves us asking: “Are we going to be inhabitants of a world akin to such-and-such book?” Or, even more generally: “Is the future going to be rewritten by us, or by fate?”

It is these exact questions that Franz Kafka evokes in The Trial. Josef K., a respectable bank officer, is suddenly and inexplicably arrested and must defend himself in court against a charge about which he cannot obtain any information. He continues to live his daily life throughout the year; however, K. sinks deeper and deeper into paranoia as he struggles to discover the cause of his arrest. Kafka creates a nightmarish yet philosophical tale as we follow K. on his eventful quest to discover the cause of his arrest.

In addition to questioning the future of today’s bureaucracies, Kafka complexly incorporates elements of existentialism and absurdism. Existentialists believe that humans have the capability to determine their development and prosperity through their free will, and absurdists believe that humans are born without a purpose in a chaotic world. While K.’s world might have similarities to our world, it is nonetheless somewhat chaotic — the most evident example being the system of law which promotes arbitrary arrest (imagine how terrified you’ll be if, one day, you wake up and find out that you are under arrest for a crime about which you do not and cannot know). We see such systems of law in countries like North Korea, which is headed by a dictator, and, during Kafka’s time, the Soviet Union, notorious for its ruthless crackdowns on personal freedom. In totalitarian states, people are limited to how they can express themselves; in other words, their free will is restricted. Coupled with the chaotic world they live in, they feel perplexed or even threatened. Kafka created such a nightmarish world in The Trial (and most of his other works, for that matter) that an adjective was coined: Kafkaesque. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Kafkaesque describes anything “characteristic or reminiscent of the oppressive or nightmarish qualities of Frank Kafka’s fictional world.”

To be honest, The Trial is one of the hardest books I have ever reviewed. At barely 250 pages, it is very dense and has numerous implications. There is even a parable within the story itself that has numerous interpretations! So, reading this book requires patience and, most importantly, time, to digest what Kafka is conveying. The abovementioned interpretation is only one out of the many that exist.

Since The Trial was originally written in German, I read a translated edition from Breon Mitchell. This edition is apparently based on the restored text of an international team of experts who have recreated the story as close as possible to the way Kafka left it. Incidentally, Kafka had ordered his close friend, Max Brod, to burn everything he had ever written upon his death. However, Brod overrode his friend’s wishes and published all his diaries, short stories, and novels in 1924. The first translation of The Trial by Willa and Edwin Muir came out in 1937. However, many scholars considered the Muirs’ translation as flawed. Mitchell’s new translation and restoration is an attempt to remedy the previous flawed translation. Overall, the translation is great; the semantics and grammar read well, and very few words are left untranslated.

I would recommend this book to people who like dystopian literature, German literature, and classics.

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