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” weighed so heavily on every single character that it consigned them to a dangerous, unsafe existence. The rule of law completely broke down and citizens existed 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 became so unreliable that people resorted 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 it was. The language Kafka employed was always perfect for 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 were almost endless in this parallel universe where “you are under arrest but not the way a thief is”. In a Macbethian sense, nothing was as it seemed and to hold “influence” was the most valuable tool one could have. As a modern reader, it was inconceivable not to think of Stalin’s show trials when the court usher informed K. that, “generally no trials are carried out here unless there is some prospect of an outcome”. Leni advised K. to “confess…then you get a chance to slip through the net”. The system was set up in favour of the state and the only way to survive was to use any “inherited” contacts one may have and abuse any “secret rules” that were in place.
Mrs. Grubach gossiped about Frauline Burtsner’s association with men, stating that, as landlady, she had a duty to look after the “morality” of her tenants, underscoring the fact that this was a society where prying on the personal lives of other people was seen as somehow a conscientious act. It was 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,” said K. as he tried to comprehend the world he was in. At first, he did not understand that the rules had changed. There were constant references to the need to bribe people as being essential. K. was unique in this utilitarian world where individual rights were unimportant, “For me there was a principle at stake” he remarked, raging against the fact that he just wanted a fair system to make an objective judgment on his trial. Things took a surreal turn when the three guards that K. “complained” about said that they, in turn, would be “beaten” because of the very complaint that K. lodged with the court. Principles and justice were irrelevant here.
The threat of violence was never far away as K’s uncle advised him that his whole family would be made to suffer if he did not heed his advice. “Personal contacts” become his only “form of defence”. When K. attempted to figure out who exactly these contacts would extend to, he deciphered that the “hierarchy went on forever… (even to the) initiated”. “My innocence does not make the matter any simpler”, exclaimed an exasperated K., further accentuating the inherent unfairness and corruption endemic in society. As in all totalitarian states, the collective inevitably annihilated the rights of the individual. “It will always hang over your head” K. was informed, meaning that his trial would never end in any true sense of the word.
Attempting to gain a foothold in an insane world, K. tried to fire his lawyer but found that this most basic of rights was nearly impossible. By now he had been completely subsumed by the state but was still operating under the assumption that the society he was living in was logical and just, “the only thing I can do now is to retain my ability to think calmly and rationally”. Even before K. was inevitably murdered, he realised that the game was up. As his lawyer tried 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.