The Castle by Franz Kafka [A Review]

Along with The Trial and Amerika, The Castle is one of the novels Franz Kafka left unfinished at his death. A tale of bureaucratic paralysis, invisible barriers and a labyrinth of obstacles that splinter into more obstacles, The Castle unnerves with its depiction of a pointless, frustrating existence.

K, a land surveyor arrives in a small village. He is late, having chosen to walk through the snow and there are now no rooms available at the inn. Instead he is given a cot to sleep in in the reception area. K is woken in the middle of the night by a villager who tells him he needs permission from the Castle to stay in the village. K explains who he is, and they make a call to the Castle to verify. Satisfied, K can get back to sleep.

In the morning, K can see the Castle up on a hill overlooking the village. He tries to make his way there but neither the main road nor any side street seems to lead that way. Soon it seems to be getting dark even though it feels as if only a few hours have passed and K is not even hungry yet. He does meet Arthur and Jeremiah, who he is told are to be his assistants though they have no equipment.

K can’t tell Arthur and Jeremiah apart so he resolves to call both ‘Arthur’ and to give both the same instructions. They tell K that strangers are not allowed inside the Castle without permission but they do not know where to get permission from.

K tries to get alternative accommodation but the other inn at the village is exclusively for gentlemen from the Castle only. K learns that Klamm, his immediate superior, is staying there. Back at his own inn, K meets the barmaid, Frieda, who he learns is Klamm’s mistress. K asks if she would be his mistress instead and she says yes! Soon, K wants to marry Frieda but is told he needs to see Klamm which is impossible because he won’t see anyone from the village.

K is able to see the mayor who tries to explain to K that the village has no need for a land surveyor, there’s been a miscommunication between departments, a huge bureaucratic mess. K shows him his letter from Klamm, tells him about the confirmation from the Castle over the phone. But the mayor has rationalisations for all of these.

Nowhere before had K. seen officialdom and life as interwoven as they were here, so interwoven that it sometimes even looked as if officialdom and life had changed places.

With no sign of employment or income, K loses his room at the inn. The schoolmaster offers K a job at the school. He can’t pay a salary, but K will have a room to stay in. K accepts and he and Frieda endure a cold night in front of a stove in the room. In the morning a school mistress and a class of children are shocked to enter their classroom and find Friend and K in bed and still in their underwear. They are followed by an angry schoolmaster who wants to know who used up all the firewood!

The Castle was begun by Franz Kafka in 1922 and like his other novels, The Trial and Amerika, it was unfinished at the time of his death and published posthumously despite his wish that all his work be destroyed when he died. If the story seems very weird and strange from the description I have given that is because it is very weird and strange. The main character, K, though, is not some inert witness; he seems to be part of the bizarreness too.

Idris Parry, who wrote the introduction to this Penguin Modern Classics edition of The Castle suggests that The Castle reflects Kafka’s existential views on life – that it consists of a proliferation of obstacles that splinter into yet more obstacles. “There is a path but no way” as Kafka is quoted. Kafka does not explain the strangeness, does not allow reason to provide any escape, but tries to get the reader to accept it as it is.

I shall tell you something of what is keeping me here: the sacrifice I made to get away from home, the long hard journey, the legitimate hopes I had as a result of being taken on here, my total lack of assets, the impossibility of my now finding another suitable job back home, and last but not least my intended, who is a local girl.

I also recall a theory that The Castle is a metaphor, not just for life but the afterlife as well. K endures a pointless existence in the village while communication with those in charge, in the Castle, or even their intercessors, is impossible. I am unsure how well that theory works for the details of the plot but it is an interesting idea.

Unfortunately, I did not find the novel itself terribly interesting. As it progresses, K learns about the lives of some of the people he meets in the village. This means some long conversations between characters. This also means reading some long, rambling, convoluted sentences with paragraphs that run for pages with little payoff for the reader.

For someone who died obscure and left little work, Kafka enjoys an enormous reputation. Like George Orwell, his name has been turned into an adjective to describe real-life situations that recall those in his novels. For someone like me, reading his works almost a century after they were published, it is difficult to appreciate why. What he was striving for in his literature was probably very innovative when people first came across it but the passage of time has made it difficult to appreciate. Not only because of writers that followed like Orwell and Camus, but because of a growing population of stories of bureaucratic dystopias.

Only a complete outsider could ask your question. Are there control authorities? There are nothing but control authorities. Of course, their purpose is not to uncover errors in the ordinary meaning of the word, since errors do not occur and even when an error does in fact occur, as in your case, who can say conclusively that it is an error?

Reading unfinished novels can be an unfulfilling exercise and The Castle does not carry the same reputation as Kafka’s Metamorphosis and The Trial. For a reader it probably does not contain much to be enjoyed. But for the student, writer or someone interested in the techniques on display or the evolution of modern themes, Kafka will probably always be a source of interest and analysis.

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