It remains mystifying that Kafka was not writing about a totalitarian society when he penned “The Trial”. He did not have the benefit, like Orwell, of observing the Soviet Union. Yet, so perspicacious was Kafka that he imagined almost entirely just such a society in 1914, long before it had actually been implemented. The burden of oppression in “The Trial” weighs so heavily on every single character that it consigns them to a dangerous, unsafe existence. The rule of law completely breaks down and citizens exist in a permanent miasma of paranoia. “Nobody has the right to acquit permanently” in this world, with everyone being guilty to a greater or lesser degree. Moreover, the justice system has become so unreliable that people resort to sneering at the ludicrous notion that certain “people think the law should be accessible to everyone”. One would never know that “The Trial” was an unfinished novel, so prodigious a work is it. The language Kafka employs is always perfectly in sync with the overbearing atmosphere as evidenced by how K. “felt disgust at their absolute cleanliness”.
The use of the double-entendre and copious references to meaningless are seemingly endless in this parallel universe where “you are under arrest but not the way a thief is”. In a Macbethian sense, nothing is as it seems and to hold “influence” is the most valuable tool one can have. As a modern reader, it is inconceivable not to think of Stalin’s show trials when the court usher informs K. that, “generally no trials are carried out here unless there is some prospect of an outcome”. Leni advises K. to “confess…then you get a chance to slip through the net”. The system is set up in favour of the State and the only way to survive is to use any “inherited” contacts one may have and abuse any “secret rules” that are in place.
Mrs. Grubach gossips about Frauline Burtsner’s association with men, stating that, as landlady, she has a duty to look after the “morality” of her tenants, underscoring the fact that this is a society where prying on the personal lives of other people is seen as somehow a conscientious act. It is redolent of Maoist China where every other citizen was an informant or was forced to spy in some fashion. Anyone even half deemed to be a “rightist” had to dishonour them for fear of reprisal.
“To help me properly, one would have to be on good terms with senior officials,” says K. as he tries to comprehend the world he is in. At first, he does not understand that the rules have changed. There are constant references to the need to bribe people as being essential. K. is unique in this utilitarian world where individual rights are unimportant, “For me there was a principle at stake” he remarks, raging against the fact that he just wants a fair system to make an objective judgment on his trial. Things take a surreal turn when the three guards that K. “complained” about say that they, in turn, will be “beaten” because of the very complaint that K. lodged with the court. Principles and justice are irrelevant here.
The threat of violence is never far away as K’s uncle advises him that his whole family will be made to suffer if he does not heed his advice. “Personal contacts” become his only “form of defence”. When K. attempts to figure out who exactly these contacts would extend to, he deciphers that the “Hierarchy went on forever… (even to the) initiated”. “My innocence does not make the matter any simpler”, exclaims an exasperated K., further accentuating the inherent unfairness and corruption endemic in society.
As in all totalitarian States, the collective inevitably annihilates the rights of the individual. “It will always hang over your head” K. is informed, meaning that his trial will never end in any true sense of the word. This reminded me of a book I recently reviewed by Xu Hongci, a survivor of the labour camps in Mao’s China, who observed that, even if you were set free, the State still viewed you as guilty to some extent. Hongci was himself imprisoned for no good reason multiple times after his sentence had finished, a commonplace occurrence in communist China.
Attempting to gain a foothold in an insane world, K. tries to fire his lawyer but finds that this most basic of rights is nearly impossible. By now he has been completely subsumed by the State but is still operating under the assumption that the society he is living in is logical and just, “the only thing I can do now is to retain my ability to think calmly and rationally”. Even before K. is inevitably murdered, he realises that the game is up. As his lawyer tries to warn him, “it is often better to be in chains than to be free”. A fact the billions of people who live, and have lived, in totalitarian societies understand all too well.