Kafka Executes Josef K.

Josef K. is arrested for no reason at the beginning of Kafka’s The Trial, and at its conclusion he is put to death for no reason as well. Kafka, who worked by day as a lawyer at a Prague insurance company, was well able to illustrate not just the absurdity and inscrutability of bureaucracy, but also its deep cruelty and impersonality. Executed in some anonymous setting of urban decay, Josef K.’s death seems a haunting premonition of all politically- and socially-motivated executions and shamings we have seen since.

They were thus soon out of the city, which in this direction bordered on open fields with almost no transition. A small stone quarry, abandoned and desolate, lay beside a building which was still quite urban. Here the men halted, either because this spot had been their goal from the beginning, or because they were too tired to go any farther. Now they released K., who waited silently as they removed their top hats and wiped the perspiration from their foreheads with their handkerchiefs while they looked about the quarry. Moonlight lay everywhere with the naturalness and serenity no other light is granted.

After a brief polite exchange about who was responsible for the first of the tasks to come – the men seemed to have received their assignment without any specific division of labor – one of them went to K. and removed his jacket, his vest, and finally his shirt. K. shivered involuntarily, whereupon the man gave him a gentle, reassuring pat on the back. Then he folded the clothes carefully, as if they would be needed again, though not in the immediate future. In order not to leave K. standing motionless, exposed to the rather chilly night air, he took him by the arm and walked back and forth with him a little, while the other man searched for some suitable spot in the quarry. When he had found it, he waved, and the other gentleman led K. over to it. It was near the quarry wall, where a loose block of stone was lying.

The men sat K. down on the ground, propped him against the stone, and laid his head down on it. In spite of their efforts, and in spite of the cooperation K. gave them, his posture was still quite forced and implausible. So one of the men asked the other to let him work on positioning K. on his own for a while, but that didn’t improve things either. Finally they left K. in a position that wasn’t even the best of those they had already tried. Then one man opened his frock coat and, from a sheath on a belt that encircled his vest, drew forth a long, thin, double-edged butcher knife, held it up, and tested its sharpness in the light. Once more the nauseating courtesies began, one of them passed the knife across K. to the other, who passed it back over K. K. knew clearly now that it was his duty to seize the knife as it floated from hand to hand above him and plunge it into himself. But he didn’t do so; instead he twisted his still-free neck and looked about him. He could not rise entirely to the occasion, he could not relieve the authorities of all their work; the responsibility for this final failure lay with whoever had denied him the remnant of strength necessary to do so.

His gaze fell upon the top story of the building adjoining the quarry. Like a light flicking on, the casements of a window flew open, a human figure, faint and insubstantial at that distance and height, leaned far out abruptly, and stretched both arms out further. Who was it? A friend? A good person? Someone who cared? Someone who wanted to help? Was it just one person? Was it everyone? Was there still help? Were there objections that had been forgotten? Of course there were. Logic is no doubt unshakable, but it can’t withstand a person who wants to live. Where was the judge he’d never seen? Where was the high court he’d never reached? He raised his hands and spread out all his fingers.

But the hands of one man were right at K.’s throat, while the other thrust the knife into his heart and turned it there twice. With failing sight K. saw how the men drew near his face, leaning cheek-to-cheek to observe the verdict. “Like a dog!” he said; it seemed as though the shame was to outlive him.

            – Franz Kafka, The Trial, tr. Breon Mitchell