Booked Out: Does expecting the Kafkaesque from Kafka ruin Kafka?

  • Books
  • Saturday, 06 Oct 2018

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A few months ago, I suggested The Metamorphosis, a short story by Franz Kafka – a personal favourite – to a friend. After reading it, during the ensuing conversation, the question of what “Kafkaesque” meant came up.

And I realised that despite never having read any of the German author’s novels, I knew what the term meant. Because of the pervasive use of the adjective, I’ve always felt like I had a sense of what the books might be like.

The word, derived from the plots and settings of stories like The Trial and The Metamorphosis, refers to situations where over-complicated bureaucracies overpower people within a disorienting and often opaque system. Said to have been inspired by Kafka’s own experiences living under the rule of the Austro-Hungarian empire, this is a pervasive theme in most of Kafka’s works.

So having heard that term used so often, I felt like I already had an idea of the Kafkaesque before I’d even read the novels that inspired the term. To address this lack, I decided to read The Trial, which was one of the definitive works that inspired the term in the first place.

Booked Out reads The Trial by Franz KafkaBut one of the challenges with reading classic or much-venerated books well after they’ve achieved their status is that you can’t quite escape the baggage of what you already know about them – even if you haven’t read them yet.

I’ve long been a fan of Kafka’s short stories – The Metamorphosis, of course, is his defining work of short fiction, but stories like A Hunger Artist or Poseidon have also been, for me, works that manage to merge the surreal, the mundane, and the often terrifying.

The Trial is usually held up as a classic example of Kafka’s style: Josef K wakes up one morning to discover that he’s being arrested for a crime that isn’t explained to either him or the reader. From this point on, he is made to navigate ever more complex and complicated layers of authority as he tries to resolve his case, only to find himself more and more entrapped in the situation.

It is a story of how utterly powerless an individual can be rendered by a governing system that prioritises its own well-being instead of its people, and Kafka captures the gradual, depressing wearing down of a person with startling clarity. By the book’s end, it is completely clear how control can be achieved by simply driving a person to hopelessness.

It is an absorbing and thoroughly anxiety-inducing read, but I perhaps would have found it more so if I hadn’t already built up an idea of what to expect in my mind. My previous experience with his short stories had given me a good idea of what to expect – but more so than that, my frame of reference for the book was already set by all the discussions and depictions of a “Kafkaesque” world even before I discovered for myself what that world really could be.

I couldn’t help wonder what it would have been like to read The Trial the way I had read The Metamorphosis, my first Kafka, back in my college days. I had no prior introduction to his works, and no idea of the story’s significance.

And I was absolutely blown away, at the spareness of the prose that contrasted so well with the depth of ideas. Most of all, I was thoroughly drawn into the frustrating and suffocating world that Kafka created. The Trial has many of the same characteristics, and yet – perhaps expecting the Kafkaesque from Kafka ruined Kafka for me!

Booked Out columnist Sharmilla Ganesan is radio presenter/producer and culture writer. She is currently reading her way through the titles in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. Join the conversation at or Tweet @SharmillaG.

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