Reviews: The Castle by Franz Kafka

Franz Kafka’s signature themes of surreal alienation at the hands of society and the coldness of logic have never been better realised than in his incomplete final work The Castle. The novel is a sublime representation of the way in which beaurocracy – and the labyrinthine machinations involved in the simplest of communications – can become a life-altering ouroboros.

The narrative drops K. (the otherwise unnamed protagonist) in a village, sent for to work as their Land Surveyor. The village exists in the shadow of the Castle, location of the village’s rulers, administrators and gentleman aristocracy. K’s arrival causes some fear and confusion amongst the locals; he is initially allowed to sleep in one of the town’s inns, only to be confronted by a minor official who demands he leave immediately. The administration is telephoned and it turns out that K has a right to be there, and he sets about settling in. This proves difficult, though, as the protocols and rules of this strange town are unfamiliar and downright bizarre. The situation is further obfuscated when it is revealed that a mistake had been made in his summoning to the village.

K is painted as a realistic character living in an unrealistic world, where the form of the beaurocracy seems to come before the function. Everything and everyone must be right, because the system of administration is always right, ad infinitum. Something cannot be erroneous, because the officials do not make errors (even though in K’s case, an error was made). The tone of the book is dark, dreamlike and surreal. Encounter after encounter leaves the reader feeling confused and intrigued, although that sense of intrigue and interest beings to wane as every encounter and conversation only serves to further the sense of confusion and to underline the simple fact of the narrative; there is no point. There is no grand explanation, no amazing reveal.

I had problems with this book. For one, I didn’t finish it. As soon as I learned that Kafka never finished it himself, I saw little reason to forge on. The tone, the setting, the feel of the book is excellently executed but if the plot never goes anywhere (and it doesn’t, really for around 250 pages) then why should I continue reading?

It is a testament to Kafka’s skill that this book is at all readable, considering he was unable to complete it before his death. Reminiscent of the utter pointlessness of bureaucratic red tape and the alienation present in Terry Gilliam’s masterful film Brazil, The Castle is an exercise in surreal social commentary that rings true to this day. As a narrative, however, it falls a little short.

– Ben Vernel


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