The Pequod Review:
Franz Kafka’s The Trial is at once simple and complex. At its most basic level, it is the story of Josef K., a respectable 30-year-old bank cashier who is unexpectedly arrested for an unspecified crime. The trial to determine his guilt or innocence has already begun, but Josef is unable to contact the presiding judge or find out any details about his case. Even his lawyer cannot get answers. The majority of The Trial centers on Josef's unsuccessful attempt to clear his name and establish his innocence.
From this simple framework, Kafka has crafted an impressive story. It has a surreal and dreamlike atmosphere, as Josef seeks to understand his crime but is powerless in the face of an omnipotent tribunal. And it also has real tension, as we follow Josef’s growing psychological turmoil and confusion. The Trial exploits one of our most timeless fears — being accused of a crime we did not commit — and we can easily imagine how Josef's fate could be our own if we lived in such an authoritarian society.
It is often said that Kafka was a prophet, given that he wrote The Trial seven years before Mussolini became prime minister and eighteen years before Hitler rose to power. But in fact it was Kafka’s own personal experiences with bureaucracies and the legal system that give the story much of its authority. Kafka had previously spent a year as a law clerk at the Prague Court, witnessing both civil and criminal cases, and he also worked for an insurance company where he learned about the contract terms that governed personal injury reimbursement. He understood how, with just a bit less accountability, these powerful institutions could become truly monstrous, wholly indifferent to the plight of ordinary citizens. If his novel has a flaw, it’s that it loses its impact on subsequent readings, as the sense of mystery and confusion is less acute. But aside from a handful of his very best short stories, this is Franz Kafka’s most successful work.