By Ajinkya Kale

This 52-page short story takes place in a fictional colony situated somewhere far away from Europe. A traveller is sent by a commission to review the condition in the colony. While surveying, he comes across a peculiar officer who introduces him to an unusual ‘machine’- a complex apparatus designed to punish the condemned through torture. And that is done by inking the said sentence on the defaulter’s skin, till death. A series of needles, channels to wash off the blood, a felt to stifle the moans, a pit to dispose of the dead bodies, everything has been taken care of.

There are a handful of characters – a condemned man, a soldier, an officer and a traveller. (I labelled them as the sufferer, the blind-follower, the propagandist and the observer respectively.) The dialogues between the ‘officer and traveller’ fill the majority of the text but the focus juggles between individuals, society, culture and technology.

The story is concise, allegorical and shocking. I’d get into the particulars but this time I won’t be conventional. Instead, I’ll just jot down the subtle themes I was successful in interpreting.

  • Absurdity & Injustice – The condemned person doesn’t know why he is arrested. The lack of communication is intentional in order to make justice faster and ‘unconfused’ as there will be no attempts for fooling and falsifying. So there are no trials and the judgment is passed arbitrarily by a single person. No questioning, no witnesses, no proofs, nothing. Complain & it’s done.
  • The Machine – It can be viewed as a symbolization of man’s unbelievable extent to complexify and even introduce artistry in the forms of punishment. It reflects the perverted & horrifying side of technological progress. Calculated torture seems to be the ultimate savagery.
  • Observe – The ‘traveler’ could be an alter-ego of the author or just a normal person with whom readers could relate. He is portrayed as curious, questioning and empathetic. But his job is to simply observe and not react, even if he encounters injustice. His job is to see and report to the concerned authority, preferably without prejudices & motivations. As we go along, Kafka adds overly-idealistic descriptions of the traveler to the point of mocking him. Also, given the fact that we all are ‘travelers’ the author hints toward a dilemma- How should a traveler act? The question hovers upon the boundary of professionalism and ethics.
  • Black humor & satire – Franz indirectly mocks the European way of thought, probably the ideals of romanticism, ignorance and pride.
  • Inertia & Change – Old systems have become obsolete & unnecessary. To mask the piling inefficiency, elder bureaucrats pursue the policy of Whataboutery. People seem to be wary and thus show negligent support for the systems. In general, people are in anticipation of reform. Even the behavior of the new recruits points towards the same. The unwanted elements of society are being disposed of in a planned fashion. The future holds the potential for betterment.
  • Misplaced faith – When faith, either collectively or individually, is invested in something which is inherently wrong, then sooner or later, it will backfire.
  • Propaganda – The system’s dysfunctionality has been masked by creating an illusion of deception and imposition of blind faith build & spread through calculated propaganda. Labyrinthine documents are held to be the concrete proofs of its transparency & workability.
  • Torture – Is torture the right form of justice? Well, the penal colony believed it to be, at least in the past. Back then, the act of torture was celebrated as a festival by the community. The ‘faster’ form of justice would be heartening for the victim but faulty and fatal for the accused. Torture was believed to be a holy form of transfiguration but the condemned had to be totally submitted. The sentences given to the accused were – and still continue to be- so strict that they appear inhuman & ridiculous. The death penalty is obsessively & sweepingly given, even for petty crimes and understandable instances, like a servant shouting on his master or a guard sleeping on duty.
  • Writing – Witty & spotless writing with an undercurrent of genuine socio-political motive. Nothing seems out of place. Kafka, in his trademark fashion, strikes against the irrationality & inhumanity of the obsolete systems