Franz Kafka's The Castle and the trial

Lost in a File-cabinet: Kafka’s ‘The Castle’

The specter of bureaucracy was not only looming on the horizon of Europe when Franz Kafka wrote his unfinished novel The Castle, its nightmares had already begun to manifest themselves in everyday life. The Russian authors Dostoevskii and Gogol, two authors Kafka had been influenced by, had already explored the dark side of bureaucracy. Kafka did not merely follow this tradition, he created a masterpiece that defies anachronism. In a literary world where bureaucracy was taken for granted, Kafka looked beyond frustration into its yet unexplored realms- particularly, to the phenomenon of insinuating oneself in the system. How can one purposefully entangle oneself with a bureaucracy and make it beneficial? Kafka seems to be looking at precisely that.

K., the protagonist of the novel, is deceitful from the very beginning. He wanders in to a village one night, and even admits originally that he has no idea where he is: “’What village is this I have wandered into? Is there a castle here? (4)’” Of course, if he was supposed to be there, he would not need to ask where he was. Only after being informed that he was to be ejected from the place does he concoct the story of being the awaited Land-surveyor. The blatant lie serves the purpose of getting him out of immediate trouble and buying him time, for it would take some effort to completely disprove his claim.

The Land-surveyor is supposed to have two servants. K. claims that they are his old assistants, even going so far as to claim that they have an apparatus which he gave them with them. When he meets them for the first time, he admits that he does not know them, and then asks them if they are indeed his old servants. They claim that they are, but admit that they have no apparatus. Later in the book, however, one of the servants acknowledges to K. that he was sent by the Castle to cheer him up. The Castle must have known already that K. was lying then, and took advantage of this by insinuating two spies into K.’s everyday life. If K. had truly come as the Land-surveyor, he would not have accepted the two as servants as his old servants.

At one point, K. even admits that everything has been a big con. K. recalls how if it weren’t for Schwarzer, the man he first lied to in the inn upon arriving, there would be no question of him being a Land-surveyor, and he would be involved with the bureaucratic process, but not on his own terms: “The authorities would have pursued the matter further, but calmly, in the ordinary course of business, unhorsed by what they probably hated most, the impatience of a waiting applicant (217).” The fact that it was K. who first engaged the bureaucracy, with a case that couldn’t be settled either way by a miserably dysfunctional government, gave K. all the power. If it was the bureaucracy who came to K., this book would be The Trial all over again.

The sham is even recognized by K.’s fiancee, Frieda. K. tries to enlist a child in a deceitful game against his mother, the deceit of which Frieda recognizes instantly. The deceit of K. in that particular situation is then extended by Frieda into their entire affair: “’To me, you looked just as you did that night when you came into the taproom… and I saw how he had fallen under your influence so completely already, well, what great difference was there between him, the poor boy, being exploited here by you, and myself that time in the taproom? (206)’” K.’s response is that what Frieda has said is not untrue. For K., being with Frieda was just another way to gain connection to the Castle, on account of her relationship with Klamm.

The fact that the real object for K. is not to gain access to the Castle is made apparent early on: “’My assistants should be arriving soon. Will you be able to put them up here?’ ‘Certainly, sir,’ he said, ‘but won’t they be staying with you up at the Castle?’… ‘That’s not at all certain yet,’ said K.; ‘I must first find out what work I have to do… I’m afraid, too, that life in the Castle wouldn’t suit me. I like to be my won master (9).’” At this point, it was not difficult for K. to create a fake purpose, so why not make an attempt at this point to gain access to the Castle? Not long thereafter he doesn’t take advantage of an opportunity to accompany Barnabas to the Castle. Though there is no apparent risk involved, he creates one in his mind to make it easier to decline.

The objective is to involve himself in a protracted engagement with the power structure of the society he’d wandered into. Though he is told that he won’t be admitted to the Castle, he has no real reason to believe that it is really that risky to at least attempt. If it were simply a matter of getting behind the walls, there’s no reason to believe that the goal is unobtainable. He is even told later by the sister of Barnabas, Olga, that there are people who simply wander into the Castle and ask for a job. As K. claims himself, “he had not come here simply to lead an honored and comfortable life (200).” If he mad a claim on a job that could actually be obtained, the matter might eventually be settled, ending K.’s game.

Learning quickly how deeply ineffectual the local system is, K.’s insistence that he has a right to be in the village only increases. First setting his sights on a visit with the mayor, he then insists on meeting Klamm, an official of the Castle, himself. The meeting with the mayor tells a great deal about the system under which the village operates. A convoluted story is told by the mayor about the Land-surveyor situation. A search ensues for the documents about the Land-surveyor problem, the result of which is the revelation that the documents are completely lost. The scene is like a metaphor for the entire novel: just as K.’s case as the non-Land-surveyor becomes lost in endless bureaucracy, documents- which may or may not have ever existed- are lost in the “filing system,” and all action is doomed to postponement. All of this is to K.’s advantage, for as long as he has a case nominally existing in the system, he has a connection to the system.

One reason that being entrenched in bureaucratic processes is beneficial to K. is that it is the only way anything ever happens in the village/Castle society. Olga tells K. of how her father tried to circumvent the bureaucracy, and reach the officials directly: he sat on the Castle hill road and waited for the officials to pass by, so that he could petition them directly. The officials drive very fast, never stop, and have no time for him, however. She also tells K. that her father was the only one trying such a futile way to get to the Castle, and that everyone with common sense would banish the thought of doing so. The point of the story is that no one ever circumvents bureaucracy, and no one ever reaches the officials.

Olga’s own attempts at connection to the Castle are less dignified, but perhaps more reasonable considering the circumstances of village life: “’For more than two years, at least twice a week, I’ve spent the night with the servants in the stables (285).’” She admits that her actions are almost hopeless and undeniably ineffectual,but insists to K. that she is making at least some connection to the Castle. The “crime” of the family that has reduced t˝hem to desperate measures to gain connection to the Castle was that the family declined the greater connection (through Sortini) to the Castle that was freely given. This is not to say that Castle connections are good or worthwhile: observe the case of the Landlady. Nonetheless, in a world dominated by bureaucracy, those who shun it are punished.

In conclusion, though K.’s case is never settled, can’t it be said that things ended well for K.? He managed to drag out his struggle with the Castle over his petty case, and thus maintained his coveted connection to the Castle. In all likeliness, that might be the best that can be achieved, for there is no real reason to believe that direct interaction with the officials can even happen. In the meantime, he got to run free through the village, involving himself in all kinds of intrigue- the pastime of society ruled by impersonal and deeply entrenched bureaucracy.

Works Cited

Kafka, Franz. The Castle. Trans. Willa and Edwin Muir. New York: Schocken, 1974.

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“Aubade (The Messenger)” – Short Story

As a writer, I find myself constantly engaged in conversation with literary and artistic traditions. In that spirit, I post this recent short story of mine titled Aubade. Read carefully and you might find some of my broader biases and opinions on public art (another justification for the story’s presence on this site). I won’t comment much here on it, aside from noting that an “Aubade” is a song/poem/literary work that is set at the moment of the morning parting of lovers. Its a title I’ve used often before in different ways (paintings, sonnets, poems, etc.), chiefly because I find the spirit of the theme to be so poignant by nature that many opportunities present themselves. Enjoy!

Aubade (The Messenger)

Alan knocked on his boss’s door once. He paused to cough into his fist. He always coughed when he was nervous, but this was a hazy morning thick with atmosphere. It made the coughing seem more justified. A smell of distant cigarettes caught his attention.

Perry opened the door before Alan could resume knocking, which caught him off-guard. He was further thrown-off by Perry’s appearance- he wore a terrycloth bathrobe, a cornflower blue washcloth casually slung over his shoulder, his black hair freshly slicked back in a hurry. He smelled profoundly of aftershave. Alan felt a tickle in his throat and turned away for a minute to clear it. Around the corner of the house, he noticed a tuft of smoke and the cigarette smell grew more imminent. Alan thought he heard someone else coughing from that direction.

“Sir.” Alan finally addressed his boss. He leaned in closer to him, and spoke beneath his breath, “sir, I believe someone is smoking by the side of your house. Or there is smoke. And someone is nearby it.”

“I’m not too worried about it, Alan.” Perry’s response was sympathetic, but his position as Alan’s boss always made him feel somewhat self-conscious about not sounding imperious or condescending. Alan was significantly older than him, having been with the company nearly as long as Perry’s 33 years.

“Sir, your… your company doesn’t need to wait outside like that. She’s welcome to…”

“‘Company?'” Perry laughed loudly, interrupting the awkward flow of Alan’s inferences. “Al, look, does it look to you like we’re in the hour of formality?” He smiled at Alan warmly, acknowledging the deficiency of his dress for the occasion of speaking with his second-in-command. Alan smiled back, clearly relieved.

“Anyway, I saw my company off already.” Perry reported it, but Alan knew that already. He had come earlier, before dawn. He’d halted at the door. Through the window he saw the sleek silhouette of a woman inside pulling a dress around her waist by a dim light in the pre-dawn darkness. It embarrassed Alan intensely. He decided to drive around, waiting until the girl had definitely left to return. It took that time to quell his anxiety about the incident.

“Annette. She’s some kind of public-works conservator, looking at that hideous sculpture downtown” Perry continued.

“You don’t like the sculpture?” Alan poorly concealed an affronted taste.

“It’s the worst. Absolutely the worst.” The “sculpture” Perry referred to was a square contrived and executed in the past year on the margins of downtown, across from the courthouse.

“You would have preferred a Memorial to one of our luminary statesmen?”

“No- oh no you don’t. Don’t you try to peg me a conservative. It’s just this ‘Official Surrealism,’ this bourgeois brand of politely paraphrasing De Chirico I see all over the place now. Four plain, milk-white marble spheres ‘lyrically’ scattered like marbles across an empty white plaza, a slightly off-kilter cube pointing skyward, a fountain disabled from spouting water… If you’re lucky, you get a hand half-submerged in grey concrete, pointing suggestively this way or that. It’s all so cynical. Like we’re going to believe we’re in the Age of Enlightenment, the intellectual era, just because we built some inscrutable-yet-suggestive monuments. Look, nobody gets the thing because there is nothing to get!”

Alan was definitely hurt by this tirade. He hadn’t got the square, but he certainly had hoped someone else- someone with more imagination- had got it.

“Perry. I’m not here to discuss art and the State. But then, you know that.” Perry nodded, feeling at his freshly shaven jaw and staring at the cheery doormat at his threshold.

“You won’t be coming in then, Alan?”

“We got a call from your father in Paris about an hour ago. We’ve got to get an early start today. He thinks so, at least. And yet, it looks like you’ve got quite a bit on your mind right now.” He noted the central tendency of Perry’s expression towards a dreamy smile. He seemed so preoccupied with an internal amusement, he didn’t know how to get through to him. Alan felt the sharp sting of envy.

“Ok. That’s fair, Alan. Lovesick Perry is lovesick. How will he get in the game? I tell you what though, c’mon. Let’s take care of this.”

Perry stepped past Alan briskly into the yard. The pervasive smell of his aftershave made Alan a little nauseous. Perry pulled the long razor he had just been shaving with from the pouch at the front of his bathrobe. He considered a few different plants that were blossoming in the beds along the sidewalk of his house. When he had made his selection, he sliced quickly at the delicate stems of a a few puffy yellow flowers.

“Here, hold this.” Perry unceremoniously shoved the flowers at Alan, who was clearly uncomfortable around this level of spontaneity. He pondered some additional flowers, fretting for long moments at a time. Feeling around the inner breast pocket of his robe, he asked Alan if he had a lighter. No sooner had he asked Alan, he drew two cigarettes from the pocket and lazily pointed one at Alan in a half-hearted offering. Alan declined- he had never smoked. Technically, Alan had never responded to his boss’s question about the lighter- not that he had one.

“Alphonse! Alphonse!” Perry yelled. He fidgeted with the flowers in his hand. “Yeah, this is good. I just need Annette to know where I’m at. I can get my mind off last night. I just need her to know though- I’m not gonna stop thinking about it otherwise.” He looked Alan in the face as he spoke now. “I just want her to know, I’m not some jerk. I’m a good guy, I really am. I want to see her again, I really do. She’s just so… man, she’s just special.”

Alan was touched by Perry’s sentimentality. He could tell how genuine he was being, and that was something quite different from the way people in their world operated. One rarely knew what a colleague in their business really thought. Perry always played tough at work, but Alan had known from day one that it was all for show. Perry was a reluctant captain.

“Hey Al, could you go get Alphonse from around the house?”

“Um, Alphonse, sir?” Alan was puzzled.

“Yeah, I need a light. Plus, I’m going to have him get these flowers over to Annette- she’s working in the square today. God knows, it’s the one thing -ok, one of two things- that Alphonse is good for.”

“Oh. Ok.” Alan was thoroughly nonplused. He was incredulous Perry was employing someone he’d never even heard of. Then again, he was getting the idea that there was a lot more to Perry than he’d assumed.

Somewhat impatiently now, Perry nodded at Alan, noting his reluctance. With a reasonless trepidation, Alan rounded the corner of the house to the side yard. He remembered the puff of smoke and the coughing. Perry started to shout “Alphonse” once again. Just as Alan entered the side yard, he nearly ran full-speed into a dove. The dove was a full eight inches taller than Alan. He was not alone with him either, which filled Alan with alarm. There were three other doves, even taller than the one he stood face to face with. One of them scrambled to cover a pair of dice in the dirt. Another tucked a small pile of dollars beneath a purple hydrangea with his claw.

Alphonse stared with expressionless black eyes at Alan. His friends were also staring, their expressions more clearly apprehensive. They were caught playing dice, something that was not done at this early hour. One of the pigeons surreptitiously stamped out a cigarette. Alphonse made a move to walk around Alan who appeared frozen with fear. He nearly jumped as Alphonse moved past him into the front yard.

Perry waved Alphonse towards him, signaling for a light of his cigarette. Alphonse casually flicked the lighter with his claw and handed it over. Perry sized him up as he lit the cigarette. “Buddy, you don’t look so good” Perry started. “I think you gotta get more rest.” He paused. When he resumed, he spoke very slowly and annunciated each syllable with purpose: “Alphonse, I need you to find this girl. You give her these flowers- my friend Alan over there has some for you as well. Annette. You can’t miss her- petite, enormous smile, full laugh, amber hair in long curls. Short black dress. She’s fucking beautiful.” He laughed. Alphonse was apparently laughing too.

The dove gave a confident nod of acknowledgement and walked back over to Alan. He put out his claw to collect the yellow flowers, and carefully bundled them all together as Alan cautiously extended them.

Alan had been severely put off by Alphonse’s friends, who were still staring dumbly at him. There was no real way for them to understand each other, but it hadn’t needed to be this weird. They clearly felt sheepish for having been discovered gambling with Alphonse when he was supposed to be working, or at least on-call for work.

Without stepping away from Alan, Alphonse launched into the air with a flurry of sudden motions. Alan felt the stiff feathers brush his arms and his cheek. He saw Alphonse spit something carelessly from his beak as he rose above him. He seemed to hover just above for a moment, looking down at Alan below with an indecipherable expression.

Terror and confusion finally overwhelmed Alan. The strangeness of the entire morning caught up to him all at once. He began an involuntary, unpolished scream that was both shout and cry at once. The shrieking was clearly not well conceived and executed, as his voice was breaking awkwardly at random intervals. He kept screaming though. He could not stop.

Having walked across the yard towards Alan, at first Perry looked at him in the face with disgust. His lack of composure was so out of the realm of acceptability, he had the notion to fire him on the spot. He’d kept the well-seasoned company man around to avoid this kind of indulgence- is it not unreasonable to assume thirty-plus years in the Corporate realm would instill deeply the virtue of decorum? His disgust turned to amusement, if not pity, after a long moment. His colleague seemed to have left the corporeal world for another place, never stopping his unseemly expressions of shock. He patted Alan- who was now shaking visibly- on the back as he addressed him.

“Heh. Al, tell me something- who’s distracted now?”