Monday, August 06, 2007

Reader's Diary #275- Franz Kafka: In The Penal Colony

Franz Kafka is one of those authors I've heard mentioned time and time again but of whom I was totally in the dark. Not only had I not read anything by him, I wasn't even able to come up with a single title. Fortunately, the omniscient web has once more come to my rescue.

For a list of some available Kafka stories to read online, click here. They're English translations done by Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College in Nanaimo, BC. While I have no knowledge of German whatsoever and therefore unable to comment on how true to the originals they are, I can say that my first foray into Kafka's writing was enjoyable. Disturbing, but enjoyable.

I chose to start with his "In The Penal Colony", written in 1919. A word of warning for those who haven't read it but would like to- it's a little disturbing and if you're looking for a lighter fun read I suggest you skip this one.

"In The Penal Colony" is a story about a man who travels, at the request of the current Commandant of a tropical island, to observe what will possibly be the last execution performed by a very...barbaric torture device. To pique the interest of those of you that still haven't read it, I'll leave out the details as to what the device does to its victims. Only four characters are present: the traveller, the officer (in charge of operating the machine), the condemned man, and the soldier (in charge of guarding the latter).

The plot falls, not as you might expect with the condemned man's fate, but with the fate of the machine itself. It seems the new Commandant (who doesn't actually appear in the story), does not feel comfortable with the cruel injustice. The officer believes the traveller has been sent to pass an outsider's judgement on the events, and to report back to the Commandant. The officer, with a bizarre adoration of the machine and the old Commandant, pleads with the traveller to help keep the device in operation. When the traveller does not agree, the officer decides to...well, that's another detail I'd rather not reveal.

At first I didn't think I enjoyed the story. A bit of gratuitous violence, nothing more.

But then, the more I thought about it, the more I appreciated. I was disturbed by it, and I had to give credit to Kafka for still being able to affect a 21st century reader in that way. A lot of horror writers and movie directors don't seem to realize that instant flashes of gore doesn't equal scary. But what a lot of others don't realize is that it doesn't hurt either. Kafka knew how to dish it out effectively.

First off, the cool matter-of-fact way that the officer explains the punishment combined with the reserved demeanor of the traveller, left me filled with unease. And that the condemned man had no idea what his punishment would be made it all the worst. Details may have been liberal, but emotions were suppressed and that tension worked brilliantly.

Still, it was just a well written horror story.

Not so. Again, the story plagued me. There seemed to be something else going on. The illegible writing on the officer's script, the ambiguous character titles, the language barrier, the contrasted "relationships" between the traveller and officer versus the soldier and condemned man, all lead me to believe something more was going on.

That "In The Penal Colony" might be an allegory is not a unique assumption. I'm not the first to look for the two Commandants to be somehow related to the Old and New Testament God(s). But that was just one theory. I also suspected it might be an attack on colonialism. Maybe if I looked hard enough, I'd find evidence of Marxist theory.

Yet no matter what angle I looked at it, I couldn't figure out the message, or even solid proof that there even was one! It was like I was being tortured...

That's when I developed my own interpretation- admittedly still in its rough stages. Perhaps "In The Penal Colony" is a story about itself, a meta-story if you will (or maybe Hofstadter's book is taking its toll on me!) Could it be that the story is a torture/execution device? That Kafka is the officer? If that is the case, it follows that I, the reader must be the condemned man, destined to suffer the effects of the story but unaware of what that might be. Who, then, is the traveller? What about the soldier? I'm not as confident about these interpretations but it could be argued that the traveller represents the scholar, the soldier is the publisher, and the Commandants are society. The punishment? I, the reader am sentenced with allegory, punished by having morals thrown in to my story!

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this interpretation- or any interpretations of your own.

(Just a reminder that if anyone else out there should write a post about a short story, please feel free to submit the link to me at jmutford [at] hotmail [dot] com to use in my short story themed Bookworms Carnival coming up in the fall. Also, if you have written any posts about summer reads, feel free to submit them to Reading Is My Superpower. She is hosting this month's carnival with the theme "Surviving the Dog Days of Summer: Books That Take Your Mind off the Heat" and the deadline to submit posts is August 10th. Even if you don't submit, make sure to check it out!)


Barbara Bruederlin said...

Thanks for that link - I am going to read the Penal Colony shortly, as I am now intrigued. But perhaps the traveller are us, having the story/the apparatus explained to us. I'll let you know after I read it.

Allison said...

Thanks for the link! I love Kafka, but haven't read this story. I will now though.

Anonymous said...

Argh. I really don't want to read that book but your review piqued my interest.

John Mutford said...

Barbara: I considered that option at first. He does seem to be the one I first connected to, mostly because he and the officer are the two most upfront characters, and there's no way you'd want to relate to the officer! But the condemned man is the most obvious victim of the device, so I'm not sure. Maybe my whole theory is a bunch of malarky.

Allison: I hope you do! Tell me what you think.

Carrie: It's actually just a short story, if that eases your reluctance a little.

richard said...

I've taught a little Kafka recently, in connection with Derrida and deconstruction. There's a one-paragraph story called "Before the Law," and a lengthy, dizzying essay by Derrida of the same title. (It's in Derek Attridge's collection Acts of Literature for Routledge, 1992.)

The metafictional aspect of both stories can't be overlooked, but Derrida pushes further to suggest that Kafka's writing about the nature of language, maybe even of human culture itself. Derrida's at his absurd, performance-art best in this essay, making you realize not only that he could say something useful after all but that Kafka was (and I use the term in its most technical sense) a freaking genius.

Dewey said...

I haven't read that story, but I recommend this.

John Mutford said...

Richard: I'd have to read more before lobbying that word around, but I do think this particular story was ingenious.

Dewey: I've been wanting to read Metamorphosis ever since you alluded to it here. Now with an illustrated verion- by a MAD Magazine artist no less- I have no excuses not too! Thanks for the link.

John Mutford said...

Above: too = to. Dang spelling mistak!

Anonymous said...

I have Trial and Netamorphosis. Kafka is definitely not for the faint hearted. His symbolism is difficult to decipher too.

Thanks for the review. I have not read this.