Whirr2008-01-15
Kafka, Part III

I just finished reading The Castle. Part I and Part II are smaller reactions, but here's even more text about the book. Which I greatly enjoyed.


I've always enjoyed a certain kind of Fairy Story, like Neverwhere, for example (Neal Gaiman and Susanna Clark are modern exemplars of this kind of story). My favorite scenes are the ones in which a mortal finds herself in Fairy, and begins to realize just how Strange it is. Everything seems crazy, and nothing makes any sense. Nevertheless, there are certain Rules that must be followed. Sometimes they are sinister rules indeed, but no matter how arbitrary they seem it is perilous to break them. For example, one must never accept a gift in Fairy--everything must be paid for in fair exchange of goods. One must never eat anything in Fairy. One must never be rude or disrespectful, and one must never step off of the path. These rules make no sense, but it is dangerous to ignore them.

For many folks, the canonical (although certainly not the original) story of this kind is Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. What interests me, and one reason that I love these stories so well, is that there are always rules in them, and they do describe an ordered system. However, the rules are so alien and seemingly (or actually) without motivation, that at first blush it seems an entirely chaotic and disordered landscape. (This is also why I like the game mao) It is possible (at least in theory) to navigate this world via inductive reasoning. Indeed, Alice does so in the second novel, ultimately becoming a Queen. Note that she could never have become a Knight, however nonsensical the setup seems.

When I started reading Kafka's The Castle, it felt like it was in the same tradition as Alice, with its bizarre customs and unbreakable rules. Something didn't seem right, though, and it took a while for me to figure it out. What I finally realized that that it was, in fact, the exact opposite. In The Castle it first appears that there is a fine-grained order, and an exhaustive set of rules dictating everything, but in reality there are no rules at all. Or, rather, there are rules, but they are arbitrary and they are either unenforced, or enforced at random.

This is made explicit in Olga's story. At first it is presented as if her sister had caused some grave (but unintentional) offense to the Official, Sortini, and that until it could be redressed the whole family would be punished--typical Wonderland Red Queen business. However, in reality what happened was that her fellow Villagers simply assumed that she had caused offense, and took it upon themselves to punish her. As Olga acknowledges, the whole matter could have been resolved merely by going to the Castle and pretending to receive absolution. No legal process was ultimately necessary or even possible, and no one in the Village would have questioned it. Life would have continued as normal.

Likewise with Klamm. Whether Frieda was ever actually Klamm's mistress, it seems likely the Pepi's analysis is quite correct--even if Frieda was lying about her relationship with Klamm, no one would ever have been able to prove it, and so she certainly could have gotten the position of mistress simply by declaring it. I was expecting that the novel would end with K. simply making himself an Official by fiat--surely he could have moved himself into one of the empty rooms in the Gentleman's Inn, stolen a few files, and become part of the system. Of course, the novel actually ends in the middle of a sentence, so I'll never know.

The other interesting distinction between Carroll and Kafka is that, for all the Red Queen's belligerence and all of the general chaos in that world, it has very little effect on the quality of life of the inhabitants. Of course they are all mad, and it is, after all, a children's book of nonsense... and there have probably been at least a few folks who actually lost their head, but in general life in Wonderland seems stable, in its own way. Bill the gardener gardens, the various messengers distribute messages, and everything is in its place. Alice may have been surprised after eating the mushroom, for example, but no one else was.

The rules and laws in The Castle, on the other hand, were so nebulous and vague that my first feeling was that they could well be ignored--that people could simply pay lip service to the Officials and go on about their business. (Perhaps after painting a few roses, or some such). This isn't the case at all, however! The whimsical, chaotic rules can have very concrete and lasting effects on the Villagers. Poor K. is insistent on principle, but there is also a real danger that he'll be put out on the (cold, snow-covered) street. Some of the misfortunes of the Barnabases are self-inflicted (the parents' ailments come specifically from standing by the side of the road day in and day out) but the community directly forces them out of their house, and there is a real danger of starvation. And, of course, their misfortunes began with Sortini's attempted rape.

So there's a world view in which the rules that seem so rigid are, in fact, so baroque as to be meaningless, and yet the consequences are deadly serious. This is in contrast to the Wonderland world view, in which the rules appear to be entirely arbitrary, and yet in reality everything maintains a rigid, inviolate order. Neither is especially appealing, but I suppose I'd have to choose 1860's England over 1920's Prague, really.

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