I read The Metamorphosis in high school fifty years ago. I remember not liking it, although I don’t remember why. I have a much higher opinion now. When Gregor Samsa wakes up and discovers he’s been turned into a giant insect-like creature, or “some kind of monstrous vermin” as this translation says, we don’t know what to expect. Will it be a simple horror story, a tragedy, a comedy? I didn’t expect Gregor to still be preoccupied with his normal affairs, like how his transformation will affect his job and his plan to send his sister to a music conservatory. Nor did I expect his family to immediately assume that the creature in Gregor’s bedroom was Gregor. The Metamorphosis is a horror story, a tragedy and a comedy too.
Another story in the collection is In the Penal Colony. It’s less well-known than The Metamorphosis, but equally disturbing. It concerns the use of a brutal machine designed to torture and kill anyone in the penal colony accused of misbehavior. The machine is horrible. So is the officer who vigorously defends the use of the machine even though he knows all the arguments against it. It is a portrait of a true believer, the kind of person who would continue to support a president who shot and killed someone in the middle of 5th Avenue.
There is no trial in The Trial. At least, there’s no trial in the sense of a judicial proceeding in which witnesses testify, evidence is presented and a decision is rendered. What there is instead is an ordeal with judicial aspects.
Joseph K. is informed one morning that he’s under arrest. But he isn’t told why or even who is arresting him. He’s allowed to go about his business before being summoned to a gathering in the attic of a tenement building that’s presided over by a supposed “Examining Magistrate”. Joseph K. makes a speech critical of the proceedings but doesn’t demand to know why he’s been arrested.
That is the last official event related to his arrest that he attends. Months go by filled with lengthy discussions of the Court (whatever that is) and his case (whatever that is). He speaks to various officials, other people who have been similarly “arrested”, a lawyer, a priest, his uncle and a painter who is said to have connections with senior judges. It’s surprising that such a mysterious, nonsensical situation can give rise to such subtle, detailed discussions.
The novel ends with a brief chapter in which something happens but nothing is revealed.
Before reading The Trial, my impression was that it was a story about an unfortunate citizen dealing with a mysterious government bureaucracy. That is true, but I kept thinking that it’s also about the human condition. Life is a trial. We are subject to powerful forces we don’t really understand and we don’t know when or exactly how the proceedings will conclude. We consult experts, some of whom aren’t expert at all, and consider our options. Then our story ends. (The book, like life, is also funny at times.)