K, a land surveyor, arrives at a nameless village dominated by a castle belonging to the absent Count Westwest. It’s a dreary, snow-covered place where everyone lives beholden to the power of the simultaneously distant and omnipresent castle authorities. The outsider K immediately senses this closed community’s hostility against him. K is innocently ignorant of the power dynamics in the village and on his first night there incurs the wrath of the villagers by failing to show proper respect to the castle authorities. As a character puts it to him, “There’s no distinction between the local people and the castle.” To slight the castle is to slight the villagers. They form one identity. And now K has come to this place that, he’s frequently admonished, he doesn’t understand, determined to live in it. He hopes that his castle-appointed job will earn him the villagers’ respect. But then he discovers that his appointment as land surveyor was a bureaucratic mistake. To make up to him they hire him as school janitor, a job he’s unfit for. K stubbornly tries to gain access to the castle, falls in love with the barmaid Frieda, meets several villagers, and then the novel ends mid-phrase because it was never finished. I probably won’t read a better novel in 2012.
Franz Kafka is not a difficult writer. The popular image of the austere, humourless, depressing writer doesn’t do justice to the novels he wrote. Don’t be impressed when you hear that he tackles serious topics: freedom, conformity, individualism, justice, bureaucracy. Don’t be too awed when you hear that he wrote of the alienation of modern man, that he was the prophet of our dehumanized world. All this high-fallutin’ talk doesn’t address the fact that Kafka was a very funny writer of bizarre situations. Thanks to their picaresque structure, his novels keep accumulating absurd incidents; plus they have an exuberant freedom: since Kafka wasn’t writing in the realistic tradition of the 19th century novel, his vaguely-defined settings permit him to take the novel in any direction he wishes. Reality is constantly slipping away; what we think is true, changes from chapter to chapter. Every character has a double nature, a secret. And no matter how brief their roles are, they have unique and memorable personalities. This is a novel you constantly cry “aha!” at, grinning at the unexpected twists. It’s like Twin Peaks, decades before.
For me, the funniest bits have to do with the novel’s paradoxes. In fact the novel opens with one: K arrives at the Castle Inn at night but is promptly informed that he needs a permit from the castle to spend the night there. But since no one can get in touch with the castle, K can’t get the permit. Kafka had a dark sense of humour; he loved to tie the narrative into many Gordian knots, but never provided an Alexander to cut them. One of the best sequences where we can see Kafka turning logic inside out is when K discusses the bureaucratic mistake with the village mayor: “It is a working principle of the authorities that they do not even consider the possibility of mistakes being made,” he informs K. This leads them to talk about the vast organisation of the castle’s administration, and how the mistake originated in one Sordini’s department, which prompts K to ask how “supervisory checks” could have failed the administration:
“You are very severe,” said the mayor, “but if you multiplied your severity a thousand times, it would still be as nothing compared to the severity of the authorities’ attitudes to themselves. Only a complete stranger would ask your question. Are there supervisory authorities? There are only supervisory authorities. To be sure, they’re not intended to detect mistakes in the vulgar sense of the word, since there are no mistakes, and even if there is a mistake, as in your own case, who’s to say that it’s really a mistake in the long run?”
“That strikes me as an entirely new idea,” cried K.
“It’s a very old one to me,” said the mayor. “I am no less convinced than you that there has been a mistake, and as a result of his despair Sordini has fallen very ill, and the first supervisory authorities to check the case, those to which we owe the discovery of the source of the mistake, also acknowledge its existence. But who can claim that the second set of supervisory authorities will come to the same conclusion, and then the third set, and so on with all the others?”
This dialogue about the nature of the castle administration is one of the best things Kafka ever wrote, right next to the “Before The Law” parable in The Trial. The administration doesn’t work but it’s too big to change, it’s so vast and dispersed. Its power is frequently alluded to but it doesn’t seem to have a centre. Count Westwest is away. Klamm, an official, is unreachable despite K’s efforts. People without apparent power, like the Mayor’s wife, seem to have more power than appointed officials. In the absence of Count Westwest the castle’s servants have created a surrogate aristocratic class that has power over the villagers just because of their association with the castle. Anyone with a connection to the Castle immediately improves his condition.
Frieda becomes a celebrity of sorts after it’s rumoured that she was Klamm’s lover (a rumour she may have started). At the same time K’s plight may be connected to a revenge exacted by Klamm. Klamm is another elusive authority figure. K only sees him once, through a peep-hole. But Klamm’s appearance also seems to change. The novel exists on the convergence of dream and reality, and truths and certainties dissolve like mist from chapter to chapter.
To heighten its strangeness, the novel is full of doubles and mirror scenes. For instance, there’s the Village Inn and the Castle Inn, which has a greater reputation. There’s the Castle Inn’s landlady and Frieda, both former lovers of Klamm. There are the two castle officers Sordini and Sortini: one is zealous, the other a cad. There are two shoemakers, Brunswick and Barnaba’s father. And Barnaba’s father mirrors K’s futile attempt to contact the castle. Barnaba’s sister, Amalia, once turned down Sortini’s sexual advances and thus brought shame to her family. They were ostracised. Barnaba’s father wastes his money and health trying to gain access to the castle and lift the punishment, but it’s useless. Furthermore, he can’t even prove the villagers are ostracising him because of the castle. There are no written, signed orders, no evidence. He just notices a shift in behaviour. And yet, much like the hostility K faces, it’s sensed it comes from the castle. Against this faceless, bodiless power there’s nothing to do be done.
In spite of the heavy themes of the novel, K is not a great hero, and contrary to what others argue, I don’t think he really stands for inconformity or individualism. He’s not a hippie or a blaxploitation hero sticking it to The Man. This novel is not a J’accuse either. I’ve read rabble-rousing literature. Hell, I’m a fan of José Saramago and Dario Fo. I know when someone is telling to go wave a flag with the hammer and the sickle on it in the middle of the street. But I never got the impression Kafka was trying to make me indignant or furious. K is a gentle, demure, patient character. He always expresses himself with honesty and doesn’t hold back his thoughts from others. He doesn’t speak in a condemnatory tone. In fact he doesn’t even censure authority per se:
“Awe of the authorities is innate in all of you here, and then it is also dinned into you throughout your lives in all manner of different ways and from all sides, and you yourselves add to it as best as you can. I’m saying nothing against that in principle; if authorities are good authorities, why shouldn’t people go in awe of them?”
He doesn’t have a problem against authority, just the castle’s inscrutable authority. Underneath the novel’s absurdism there is a tinge of sadness, though. K is a man trying to retain his individualism and dignity inside a community. And the novel is sad precisely because our belief in our individualism may just be a comforting illusion. “It is said that we all belong to the castle.” Here we can interpret the castle as a metaphor for the great mass of mankind that swallows us up. Naturally we want to assert our individuality and yet we’re condemned to live with others. Rousseau’s myth of the savage who lived in the jungle without ever seeing other men, is a fantasy for men would have gone extinct long ago if it were true. We need others but we’re also determined to protect our self. Rather than forcefully pitting Man versus Society, like we're so used to see in fiction, Kafka timidly lays bare this dilemma that may not have a solution. The realization that this trade-off is inevitable informs the novel’s melancholy. But don't take this melancholy too seriously.
“I do hope this story isn’t boring you?”
“Not at all,” said K. “It’s entertaining me.”
“I’m not telling it to entertain you,” said the mayor.
“The only reason why it entertains me,” said K., “is the insight it gives me into the ridiculous confusion which, in some circumstances, can determine the course of a man’s life.”