This is one of those books that has a reputation that precedes it that can work against it because like nearly all of Franz Kafka’s works you open it expecting to be sucked into a maze like world of dead ends and strangeness. It does contain that but there is also an assault on your own thinking going on here that lets the book operate on a different level.
Joseph K. is woken by two men informing him that he is under arrest and then he is given a bizarre interrogation in a neighbours flat. But he is allowed to go back to work in a senior position in the bank and is called to an interrogation where he lambasts the legal system but is introduced to some of its characters including the legal clerk, the attic offices of the law courts and ultimately via his uncle his advocate who is meant to defend him. After little progress K. decides to dismiss the advocate and defend himself but he seems to be unable to change his view of his trial or the legal system and in the end pays the price for being unable to heed the advice of not just his advocate but also the prison chaplain who heralds him in the cathedral.
Is it well written?
The start is stronger than the end with the reader, along with K., trying to work out just what is going on. But when it becomes clear, and the scene with the court painter is crucial here, that his case could last almost indefinitely and the role of the advocate is to keep it ticking over then you feel there has to be a decision by K. to defend himself to bring it to a conclusion. There are a few real skin creeping moments where you feel the shock of the character, as he discovers for instance that the priest in the cathedral is calling out his name. The sense of frustration and yearning for movement in the case that K. demands is something that the reader would identify with so that sense of anger with what seems to be completely illogical bordering on the stupid is a difficult thing to convey but K. manages to embody those feelings and that experience.
Should it be read?
For anyone looking for something that will challenge their perception of normality, wondering why things are as they are, and what their own response would be to something that is completely unjustified then the trial is a great read. You are constantly asked the fundamental question: what would you do? Would you fight it or accept it? Would you live with the case for years or try to bring it to a head? All of these questions are posed and what makes The Trial so special is that they are timeless and in an era of Guantemo Bay just as relevant as ever.
Leads to – More Kafka in the form of his short stories but there are also his other two novels America and The Castle which although I haven’t read have at least got an appetite for after this. In terms of multimedia some people have already commented about the Orson Welles film and for me there are very strong echoes of The Trial and its feel in the film Brazil.
Version read – Penguin paperback