Reading Kafka In A Kafkaesque World
June 29, 2020
You’ve probably come across a meme that suggests we’re all living out the latest season of Black Mirror, the relevance of the dystopian sci-fi series being the fall of society and the rise of social media and technology during the lockdown.
But we have more than just tracing apps and the pandemic to worry about. Add in protests, unlawful arrests, police brutality, riots based on religion and race, abandonment of democracy by world leaders in favour of fascism, class inequality and socio-economic injustice, corruption in the judicial and medical spheres, death by exhaustion and starvation caused by mismanaged politics – and we get a reality that consumes dystopia for entertainment.
The present human condition is chaotic and absurd, with a twisted sense of law, logic and order. We are assertive yet acquiescent, as ready to fight institutional injustice as we are hopelessly resigned to it. Franz Kafka, one of the most important Modernist voices, described such a reality in his fictional world – the one-sided battle between the omnipotent bureaucratic institutions and the hapless common man.
If any age speaks to the essence of the term ‘Kafkaesque’, it is now.
Trapped In A Kafkaesque World
According to Kafka’s biographer, Frederick R. Karl: ‘What’s Kafkaesque is when you enter a surreal world in which all your control patterns, all your plans (…) begin to fall to pieces, when you find yourself against a force that does not lend itself to the way you perceive the world. You don’t give up, you don’t lie down and die. What you do is struggle against this with all of your equipment, with whatever you have. But of course, you don’t stand a chance.’
Today, we find ourselves entrenched in this bleak foggy word that has as much to do with our history as our future. Kafkaesque is a climate, the long-term building up of systematic oppression and consequent powerlessness, the accumulation of our most primal emotions: anger, fear, confusion, and our utter inability to deal with them. We, like Kafka’s protagonists, are ceaselessly attacked by our nightmarish reality, but we do not surrender our dreams until we have used up all our ammunition.
With aspects of his fiction inspired by reality, Kafka’s work carries the theme of the bizarreness of bureaucracy. It shows the plight of the perpetually demoralised common man forever in search of justice, met only by an arbitrary administrative apparatus designed to keep him circling a maze without an exit. The absurd and sinister totalitarianism in his stories might have previously been reminiscent of the erstwhile Soviet Union or present-day North Korea, but today, especially in India, we find an instant relatability.
The Infinite Deferment Of Justice
Recently, India has seen a severe abuse of power, disdain for legal procedure, and perversion of justice. Anti-CAA protestors were unlawfully arrested by the Delhi Police while gunmen were left to roam free. Over the last month, the police have made sweeping arrests. Using the lockdown as a reason, the court stated that it was no longer feasible to monitor these arrests. Research scholar Safoora Zargar, who had been arrested for allegedly inciting violence, was repeatedly denied bail, despite being pregnant.
This casual dismissal of human/constitutional rights is seen in Kafka’s work. The fictional world of Kafka is the same in all his stories: multi-layered, hierarchical, consisting of the haves and the have-nots, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, the powerful and the powerless. Men are arrested, punished, even executed without reason. Defendants are presumed guilty without a chance to prove otherwise. The law, instead of guiding and guarding its citizens, makes them crawl through a web of cold, corrupt bureaucratised systems. Authority is inaccessible and anonymous, imprisonment is unfounded and baseless, and justice is forever out of reach.
In Kafka’s most acclaimed novel The Trial, Joseph K. is charged with an unspecified crime by an unspecified entity. K. attempts to find out why he has been arrested and by which authority, but in vain. He is told that he will be informed of everything in time, but the records that apparently confirm his guilt are never revealed to him.
In Kafka’s stories, the law is not justice. In fact, the law is the obstacle faced by man in his search for justice. K. has no tangible information, no means by which he can oppose his phantom charge. His trial is indefinitely postponed, and he is surreptitiously beaten ‘like a dog’ and killed.
In our world too, citizens are targeted and considered national threats, while the judiciary system is disregarded and considered secondary to the government. Justice itself is prosecuted by the law. Under the Modi regime, a judge who had condemned the arbitrary arrest of human activists was himself threatened with arrest. In Kafka’s short story ‘The Knock At The Manor Gate’, the judiciary, tasked with delivering unbiased justice to an innocent man, is rendered helpless under higher authority. All the judge is capable of saying is, ‘I’m really sorry for this man.’
The Unavailability Of An Omnipresent Law
In ‘The Problem Of Our Laws’, Kafka exemplifies the inaccessibility of law for the common man: ‘Our laws are not generally known; they are kept secret by the small group of nobles who rule us (…) Law is whatever the nobles do.’
Money is power, and the ones in power can make and break the law. The PM CARES Fund, open to donations from the public, was announced by the PMO as not a public authority, and thus not answerable to the RTI for any transparency of its funds.
Although the law is omnipresent and all-pervasive, it is made absent from the immediate lives of the people. The court in The Trial possesses an information officer to provide information to the layman because ‘the judicial system is not very well known among the general population’.
Courts are obscure, court proceedings are inscrutable, and law-keepers and enforcers are corrupt and unreliable. In the parable ‘Before The Law’, an old man from the country wastes his life waiting for permission to be admitted through the door of Law – symbolic of the impenetrable legal system. The doorkeeper tells the old man that his entry is possible ‘but not now’, postponing his admission indefinitely until he dies.
In Kafka’s world and ours, law is merely an ideal. Beneath that veneer runs an insidious system based on wealth and power. This system makes it possible for the government to single out its citizens based on some category of distinction – race, religion, caste, class, gender – and incarcerate them on the grounds of some non-existent offence. The law, unknowable, unreachable, invades all avenues of their life, and yet they remain unaware of what it even is. Kafka’s stories bring light to the lie that the law is open and accessible to everyone.
Alienation Within Isolation
In The Castle, the protagonist, a land-surveyor again named K., struggles to reach the castle that has apparently summoned him for work. K. is neither granted permission to enter the premises nor given access to its officials. He is told to return or stay on as a janitor. Today, thousands of stranded workers like K. fill our country. Made redundant by their employers, they cannot even return home. When they voice their plight, they are detained by the police.
The Kafkaesque situation shows the indifference and insensitivity of the ones in power, the futile struggle against a government that keeps itself deliberately at a distance from the very people it is supposed to serve. Our government ignores our country’s wide socio-economic disparity while declaring a national lockdown and passing policies that have lasting effects on us.
Our migrant workers are condemned to the same fate as the protagonist from Kafka’s The Metamorphosis – living a dispirited deprived existence, scuttling for food, reduced to mere functionality, alienated in a country that is isolated from their unfathomable predicaments.
The Kafkaesque world is compelling and terrifying. It is darkly comical, with the circular journeys of confused characters trying to make sense of their alienation, their angst caused by blind illogical authorities. Yet they never give up, their hope of justice, their faith in the future always kept alive.
It’s become important to learn from Kafka’s characters, from the world of his stories. For this is a Kafkaesque world, and we are the characters living and dying within it.
Aashmika is a writer from Mumbai. She recently completed her MA in Creative Writing from Oxford Brookes University and also has an MA in English Literature from Mithibai College, Mumbai. She is also a belly dancer, which successfully battles her professional introversion. When she isn’t reading or writing prose or poetry, she is watching TV shows. She loves animals, tattoos, nature, and taking pictures of things.
Aashmika is currently working on her first novel (but don’t ask her about it).
Read her articles here.