Josef K. wakes up on his 30th birthday to find himself arrested. No one will tell him why, and he’s free to go about his own business in the meantime. Over the course of a year, he must defend himself against a high court in a trial that never takes place. He cannot prove he’s innocent, but refuses to admit his guilt, and he can’t accept or understand the legal proceedings he’s subjected to. Each attempt at penetrating the court system or helping his case, he fails, until the finally resigns himself to his fate, and allows two men to drag him off and kill him.
I finished this book a week ago for my book club Saturday, but had no idea what to think about it after I finished. I like Kafka, and know a lot about him and his writing, but for some reason this novella felt incomplete (which, I learned, it was – see the Wikipedia entry for more info). In searching for interpretations online, I found that there was an Orson Welles movie adaptation of the book, as well as a graphic novel version published in 2008. I decided to get both of those and hoped they might help me sort out my thoughts on the book, as well as the book club meeting.
I went to the meeting first, and while I was there, even though no one knew what to say about The Trial, I had a eureka moment. I figured out exactly how I saw the book. Now, granted, this book can be interpreted in a million different ways. It can be a statement about red tape and bureaucracy. It can be a satire of law, which Kafka went to school for. It can be interpreted in classic Kafkaesque religion-conflict, in this case dealing particularly with the Old Testament. It can be make into a statement about sexual sin and/or perversion. Or, also a Kafkaesque interpretation, perhaps it’s about father-son relations. Maybe it’s an almost-dystopian novel, or a statement on societies that arrest people without a formal reason (some of those exist still today).
My eureka moment combined a couple of these, and added an additional flavor. I think the book is about failure, incompetence, and impotence (non-sexual). No matter what K. tries to do, he fails. He can’t discover what they’re accusing him of, nor can he figure out the legal proceedings. When he goes to his interrogation, he’s unable to finish his speech, or to sway anyone with it. He procures useless law help. When he goes to the court offices, the air makes him too sick to stay. He fails to stop a flogging over and over. He fails to retain his clients at work. He works really hard to learn Italian phrases for an important new client, only to find out the man speaks a dialect K. can’t understand. Each time he tries to get with a girl, the attempts fail (in ever more ludicrous ways), and when he finally does get with one, he later discovers she sleeps with all defendants. Even at the end, he knows he should take the knife from his captors and kill himself, but he can’t. Or won’t.
For Kafka, failure was like death. His stories reek of the fear of failing, of never being able to live up to expectations. I felt like The Trial explored the weight of this fear. K. was the ultimate failure. I think he was Kafka’s worst fear, the person he didn’t want to become but saw potential for in himself. I loved the last panel of the graphic novel (transitioning here…), right after K. is killed, which says, “It was as if the shame of it should outlive him.” This went right long with my interpretation.
The graphic novel, illustrated by Chantal Montellier and adapted/translated by David Zane Mairowitz, is amazing, probably my favorite graphic novel so far. It was very faithful to the text, and helped illuminate parts of the book for me, as well as adding an Old Testament element. As K. is being dragged by the thugs off to his death, he struggles for a bit. It says: “K. was reminded of flies tearing off their legs, trying to escape from fly-paper. … He realized there was no point resisting these men or keeping life going by putting up a struggle.” Once again, K. gives up. He decides to let life happen to him, to refuse to take action. A couple pages later, K. looks up at a house near his death spot and sees a man in the window. He says, “Where is the judge I’ve never seen? Where is the high court I’ve never reached?” This brought the book into a very religious light, with the judge and high court symbolic of God and Heaven. Kafka struggled with the conflict of old and new religion, of Old and New Testament. It’s easy to see The Trial – where every man is inherently guilty, the accusation does not matter – as a manifestation of Old Testament doctrine.
I could go on – I could write papers about this – but I’m trying to keep this short. (Ha!) The graphic novel was beautiful, and Montellier has a gorgeous art style. Her panels are almost Kafkaesque themselves, and suited the book perfectly. I almost feel like this is the media The Trial is most suited to, and wonder what Kafka would think if he could see it.
As for the movie version, I wasn’t real impressed. Maybe it’s because I’d just read two books and gone to a discussion about The Trial, but the movie bored me. It added extra stuff, put things in a different order, and spiced things up. In other words, not very faithful. Visually, it had some interesting effects, especially of the little girls around the painter’s studio, but mostly, I was unimpressed. The acting wasn’t too hot, either. I’m not sure I’m a big fan of Orson Welles. I saw The Third Man and wasn’t impressed with that one, either, so I wonder if it’s just his scripting and directing I don’t like. Besides, I admit that my main interest in the movie was to see if it illuminated a reference my favorite band makes to “the willing Mr. K.” The reference is supposed to have something to do with Kafka, and the band refers often to old B&W films. Alas, it does not seem to be this movie, at least not directly.
Anyway, I thought the graphic novel version was far superior to the movie. I’d go with that one if you’re looking for an adaptation and can’t get through the original book. I actually liked the graphic novel a little bit better than the novella – the novella was just too repetitive and unfinished for me – and am thinking about buying my own copy, it was so good.