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Franz Kafka – “The Castle” (review)

Alister Pearson reviews Franz Kafka’s novel regarding bureaucracy and frustration, The Castle.

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“If a man has his eyes bound, you can encourage him as much as you like to stare through the bandage, but he’ll never see anything.”

Franz Kafka’s final novel, “The Castle”, is a typically Kafkaesque story incorporating themes of alienation, frustration and bureaucracy. It is a long and gruelling read as Kafka takes us on a steady journey of Josef K’s life in a surreal setting and situation where you never quite know if the journey will provide any meaning or progression. Despite sharing many features with Kafka’s earlier work, “The Trial”, it contains additional elements such as degrees of humour as well as loving relationships between the protagonist and other characters.

Josef K has been employed as a surveyor by an unknown entity from the castle and told to report for duty at an unknown village. The village is dark and cold, we are told spring and summer only last a couple of days there, and lies below the castle. Due to the weather the castle is barely visible but its ominous presence is felt by all of the people in the village. Upon arrival, K is provided with two assistants, an annoying and childish duo that provide some unexpected smiles for the reader, as they resemble The Chuckle Brothers with their antics, jumping over one another, laughing and giggling and generally just annoying K.

K’s frustrations grow as he learns the village has no need for a surveyor and furthermore, he cannot gain direct access to the castle and has to go through various procedures and processes before he can even think of venturing there. He endeavours to meet Klamm, an alleged secretary of the castle who resides in the village sometimes. However, on the first night where he could possibly meet him, Klamm’s mistress, Frieda, distracts him and the two begin their love affair on the floor of a pub. Whether K ever genuinely adores Frieda or just uses her to try and get closer to the castle is never quite known but Frieda eventually presumes the latter and leaves him. This is not before one of the most hauntingly beautiful lines of the book where K tells Frieda “I dream of a grave, deep and narrow, where we could clasp each other in our arms as with clamps, and I would hide my face in you and you would hide your face in me, and nobody would ever see us any more.”

The rest of the novel sees K running tirelessly around the village looking for answers to explain why he was invited to this nightmarish place and perhaps more importantly who invited him and for what purpose. The book ends mid-sentence, as Kafka himself seemed to become too frustrated to provide a conclusion to this miserable story.

A logical ending to the story would be K’s death and supposedly that is what Kafka intended telling Max Brod in a letter that K would be on his deathbed when he would be notified that his “legal claim to live in the village was not valid, yet, taking certain auxiliary circumstances into account, he was permitted to live and work there”. But the actual ending, for me, is more poignant to the struggles we all have against bureaucracy. Josef K, unlike the character of the same name in Kafka’s earlier novel “The Trial”, doesn’t give in and surrender to the authorities, he tries to rebel and discover what his own fate is although it is an impossible fight. The fact that the novel ends mid-sentence shows that an individual’s struggle against the world’s order would be never-ending and is always fruitless and absurd, so giving up is always somewhat justifiable. The way Kafka expresses this in his prose makes it beyond question that he was one of the greatest writers of the 20th Century. He could even be mentioned alongside the likes of Orwell and Huxley in producing a body of work that illustrates a dystopian future that in the present day appears more and more like reality.