What really is "Kafkaesque"?

Kafka statue Prague
I’d heard the word “Kafkaesque” being bandied around for years, but only had a vague idea what it meant.

So, upon recently renewing my local library card, I was emboldened to take out their copy of “The Trial” to try to find out what “Kafkaesque” really means – or should mean. (Often words, which are misused, metamorphisise officially to their misused meaning. “Literally” is now accepted as often meaning “used for emphasis while not being literally true”.)

A friend commented: “Ahah! Starting with the light reads, eh?”

In fact, I was greatly impressed by the attractive narrative style of Franz Kafka. There are two horrendously violent incidents in the book. Apart from that, the story proceeds in a very charming and engaging way. The narrator and the subject seem to be intertwined.

At several points the story is “Monty Pythonesque”. At one point, lawyers go up stairs to try to enter a court, only to be pushed down the stairs by a court official who is in a bad mood. The lawyers realize they have no right to demand entry to the court, so they simply carrying on going up the stairs, one by one, only to be pushed down again, in order to eventually exhaust the court official so that he gives up preventing them from entering the court. It’s one step away from “Is this the ten minute argument or the full half hour?”.

We have the situation where very strange people, only tangentially connected with the courts, are said to hold influence in the legal system. The painter who paints the judges, for example. But, even more ridiculously, the gang of little girls who hang around outside the studio of the painter.

So it is a charming, in parts funny tale. Josef K, the subject of the book, doesn’t know what he is accused of. So he has to prepare a defence of everything he has ever done. After consulting lawyers and others, and tramping round weird court premises, he is none the wiser. Except it seems that it is a classic “who you know, rather than what you know” scenario. If you play the sycophant to the court, it seems they let you off. Josef K goes the other way and decides to fight the non-existent charges. I won’t give away the ending, but it is sobering and disturbing.

So where does this leave us regarding the use of “Kafkaesque”. Well, I would only use the word for a situation which has dark elements, hilarious parts and the presence of a labyrinthine bureaucracy where one can never know what one is accused of.


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