“The Trial” is multi-layered and conveys many messages about philosophy, religion, society and existence. Some are easy to spot and understand, some are much more difficult. I think I like to view it on a less abstract, more literal level – I see it as a story about state bureaucracy’s illogical and inhumane side, exaggerated to absurd and surreal proportions.
It’s not like it doesn’t happen, literally. I know people who have been detained for questioning without being told why. The police officers arresting them didn’t know either – they just received orders. And yet, everyone plays their role in the whole story, without questioning who and why assigned them that role, without realizing that – maybe, just maybe – they don’t have to play along.
Kafka’s exaggeration helps question our “suspension of disbelief”. It looks like Josef K. is the only person who initially realizes how absurd the whole story is, and so, at first, he simply refuses to participate. All the other characters look upon the events as a very normal thing. In the dialogues, they often say contradicting things in the same sentence, and are not bothered by that at all. With time, K. is dragged along by their way of thinking, and gets increasingly preoccupied and involved in his trial.
I was reminded of Jaroslav Hašek, because like Kafka he lived and wrote in Prague, at exactly the same time. His story about the Good Soldier Švejk (unfinished, just like The Trial) has a very different style and feel to it, but it tackles many of the same absurdities – this time not in the judiciary, but in the military. Interestingly, Švejk’s first name is Josef too 🙂
The book is unfinished and it shows. There are some superfluous parts, others are lacking. I’m still giving it 5 stars, because even with these imperfections it exposes society’s collective madness with great success.