Nearly 100 years ago, The Trial was written by Franz Kafka, a german language writer who was born in Prague in 1883 and died in Vienna in 1924 at age 40 from tuberculosis. Educated as a lawyer but destined to be a writer, Kafka’s works were not well-known until after his death when a friend had the author’s writings published. The Trial was originally known as Der Process and is the story of a young man who is accused of a crime he knows nothing about.
Josef K (“K”) is a 30-year old mid-level banker – a chief clerk (comparable to a commercial loan officer) – who lives in a boarding house, which was common for bachelor men in the early twentieth century. One morning he is awoken by two non-uniformed police officers who inform K he is being arrested although they can’t tell him what he is being arrested for. Briefly detained at his rooming house, he is eventually freed but advised to show up in court the following Sunday. At first outraged, puzzled, and convinced of a mistake, K sets out to understand the court system and the crime for which he is being charged. As time progresses, K fails to achieve clarity and sinks into a justifiable paranoia that affects every part of his life in his search for justice.
To appreciate the book, the reader has to realize that due process of law is not a universally accepted right; that there are societies where secret bureaucracies exist to deliver their interpretation of justice. There is no duty to inform the accused of the charges against him and he is not presumed innocent until proven guilty. The accused does not have the right to a defense lawyer or to be judged by his peers. He does not have the right to a fair trial, for K’s fate is left in the hands of secret courts that meet in attics of buildings all over town – and yet, everyone in town seems to be directly or indirectly involved in these secret court societies who believe the basis for ultimate freedom lies with who you know and not what you know. Whether the accused is innocent or guilty of some undefined crime seems almost irrelevant for the person as a whole being seems to be on trial, which may frustrate readers.
On most lists of the 100 best books ever written in the 20th century, The Trial has a lingering effect on most readers. Thoughts and questions remain long after the disturbing ending has been revealed and the last page read. Frightening and yet, fascinating and full of intrigue, Kafka through his characters exaggerates the negative traits of humans creating a psychological drama that shows how confusion and paranoia can take over the human mind in a world of the unknown and untold. Reminiscent of The Hundred Brothers, The Lottery, Animal Farm, and 1984, The Trial is a book that portrays society in a manner we don’t want to see.