Franz Kafka wanted no evidence left
behind—at his death, at age 40 in 1924, he
left behind instructions for his friend Max
Brod to burn all surviving manuscripts,
unread. Had these wishes been followed,
many of Kafka’s most
famous works, including
The Trial and The Castle,
would have been
destroyed. Yet other,
even more daunting
obstacles to Kafka’s
legacy came post-
humously from Nazi
censors, who first
limited the sale of his
books to Jewish readers, and then finally
banned them outright as “harmful and
undesirable.” But the influence of this
intensely self-critical writer—who spent
most of his career working in the insurance
industry—was only augmented by these
heavy-handed attempts at suppression.
During the postwar years, Kafka not only
emerged as one of the most influential
authors of the century, but even inspired an
adjective, "Kafkaesque"—referring to
anything nightmarishly arcane or
bureaucratically illogical—that has crossed
over into the fields of sociology and political
commentary. "Though during his lifetime he
could not make a decent living," Hannah
Arendt once wrote of Kafka, “he will now
keep generations of intellectuals both gainfully
employed and well-fed."
Essay by Ted Gioia
Gustav Janouch, a friend of Franz Kafka, once
angered the author by referring to Edgar Allan
Poe as a notorious drunkard. Kafka responded
that Poe "was a poor devil who had no defenses
against the world…. He wrote tales of mystery to
make himself at home in the
What an odd way of describing
the mystery genre!—an idiom
obsessed with crime, bloodshed,
guilt and punishment. How can
these gruesome and sordid
elements help anyone feel "at
home in the world"? Yet the
mystery elements in Kafka’s The
Trial contribute to a very similar
ambiance. They are part of the
fabric of author’s imaginary world, woven into
the most familiar and comforting contexts. And,
given Kafka’s comment, it is perhaps no coincidence
that our protagonist Joseph K. first learns that he
is part of such a mystery while he is resting at home.
When Joseph K. wakes up one morning and rings
his landlady for his breakfast, he is visited instead
by a strange man who tells him: "You can’t go out,
you are arrested."
"So it seems. But what for."
"We are not authorized to tell you that."
The apprehension of the culprit usually comes at
the end of a crime story. But in Franz Kafka's The
Trial, the arrest is signaled in the first sentence. In
most mystery stories, the reader's curiosity is
aroused by the pressing question of who committed
the crime. In Kafka's reversal of the genre, the
guilty party is known from the outset, but what
what law he violated is far less clear. Other culprits
flee from the law, but Joseph K. confronts with
gusto the legal system that has accused him of an
unknown offense. In short, every aspect of the
traditional crime story is turned upside down in
this famous novel.
Other mysteries emerge as the story progresses,
but—again—not those that typically figure in
crime stories. Who are the authorities making the
charges? What is the evidence? What is the process
to decide innocence or guilt? What are the penalties
and punishments? Even the significance of being
"under arrest" is uncertain, since K. is never
brought to jail.
Kafka does everything possible to emphasize the
quotidian qualities of his story. He is quick to
remind readers that "K lived in a country with a
legal constitution, there was universal peace, all
the laws were in force." The rote rituals and
responsibilities of ordinary life continue as usual
even after Joseph K’s arrest—he still goes to
work, consults with friends, sees family members
…everything proceeding without significant
disruption. Even so, the judicial procedures here
both intrusive and unsettling. The very locations
where they take place—in the attic of a tenement,
or a woman's room in a boarding house, or the
storage place in a bank—blur the lines between
the everyday world and the formal settings we
typically associate with legal matters. In Kafka's
upside-down world, the places where justice is
dealt out resemble the locales where, in other
novels, crimes might be committed.
Although The Trial was left in an unfinished state,
Kafka tries to give closure to the work in a
dramatic final scene. Yet even at the end, Joseph
K. is wondering where is the Judge, where is the
High Court—"were there arguments in his favor
that had been overlooked?" In a book that solved
the crime and apprehended the criminal at the
outset, huge mysteries remain after the story's close.
Inconsistencies in the plot remain and drafts
of unfinished chapters add to the ambiguity of the
final work, but these hardly detract from Kafka's
masterpiece. Indeed, one senses that this is a mystery
in which the author deliberately wanted many
elements to remain unresolved.
Do we distort Kafka's intentions by looking at this
canonic work in the context of crime fiction? We
have good reason to believe that Kafka would have
had no objections to such an approach. His friend
Janouch relates a revealing anecdote in this regard.
Janouch was embarrassed when, one day, a crime
novel in his briefcase was seen by Kafka. The latter
quickly reassured him: "There is no need to be
ashamed of reading such things,” Kafka said.
“Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment is, after all,
only a crime novel. And Shakespeare's Hamlet? It
is a detective story. At the heart of the action is a
mystery, which is gradually brought to the light.
But is there a greater mystery than the truth?
Poetry is always an expedition in search of truth."
This is the same spirit in which we need to read
Kafka's The Trial, and indeed this author's other
works as well. He takes mystery to a higher level
—one in which clues, evidence and the atmosphere
of suspense and uncertainty are raised beyond the
scene of the crime and permeate the world around
us. In this regard—as Kafka's definition of poetry
makes explicit—all true literary works confront, to
some degree, the mysterious. The adornments
provided by police, judge and jury are merely empty
gestures to compartmentalize and circumscribe this
mystery with the appearance of coherence and
completion. Kafka resists this process at every
step, even while mocking it via his use of plot
elements drawn from conventional crime fiction.
And if, in The Trial, Kafka had altered the
conclusion and given his beleaguered protagonist
an acquittal or dropped the proceedings completely,
this element of mystery would still have remained.
After all, our author seems to say, this is not just
Joseph K’s trial, but our’s as well.
Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture.
His latest book is Love Songs: The Hidden History,
published by Oxford University Press.
Publication date of this essay: August 23, 2011.
|New Angles on an Old Genre
|Postmodern Mystery is a web site
devoted to experimental, unconventional
and postmodern approaches to stories
of mystery and suspense
|Click on image to purchase
|Visit our companion sites
The New Canon
A guide to outstanding works of
fiction published since 1985
Celebrating masterworks of science
fiction, fantasy, alternate history and
Exploring radical, unconventional
and experimental fiction
Great Books Guide
A look at contemporary currents in