Of all the totemic figures in modernist literature, Kafka is the easiest to read and the hardest to write about. Easy because his novels and stories, no matter what they are supposed to “mean” in a strict thematic sense, are always masterpieces of clarity, still irresistible a century on for their eerie intelligence, for the unflinching seriousness and rigour of their operating logic, and for what George Steiner once called their “exact light”, the careful attention paid to bodies and landscapes, voices and silences, dust-laden rooms and garrets and the nightmare scenarios which take place inside of them. Also – and this point shouldn’t be taken lightly – his work has the eternal virtue of brevity; he can be read in his entirety over the course of a long weekend (a paranoid and solitary weekend though it might be, and one punctuated by lunatic dreams and trembling visits to the nearest off-licence). This last fact is an obvious and continuing source of delight for the new reader, who finds nothing of that brief, aphoristic magic in Proust or Joyce or Musil.
Perhaps for that reason – because he is so compelling on first reading, because he is so satisfying on second and third reading – and, beyond that, because the simplicity of his style translates so well into so many languages, Kafka is hugely forbidding to write about, to breathe so much as a word of analysis about. Kafkology has been a global science for quite some time now, and the poor, disheartened newcomer might well be left with the feeling that there’s nothing left to say about this particular writer, at least nothing that hasn’t already been exhaustively discussed by German philosophers, debated by Russian critics, deconstructed by shady French theorists, or copied-and-pasted into essays by caffeinated undergraduates the world over. Not only does a vast expanse of secondary literature surround his work like a grey network of suburbs and outer suburbs and commuter towns feeding into and off of a shimmering (albeit sinister) megacity, but a great deal of this literature is hostile to itself and to outsiders, to anyone who dares add another house of words to their crowded terra. Both Steiner and the usually twinkle-eyed WG Sebald have labelled most of this word-sprawl as ‘parasitic’ – the implication being that to speak of Kafka and to get Kafka wrong is somehow to diminish him, to suck the air and blood and marrow from the work itself.
So I will proceed carefully – unparasitically, I hope.
‘In the Penal Colony’ gets my vote for Kafka’s most accomplished story; nowhere else does the author’s exact light burn more fiercely or more vividly, nowhere else, not even in The Metamorphosis, does the reader come away with such a feeling of exhilarated disgust. It goes like this. On a nameless penal colony, a group of four men – a prisoner, a soldier, an officer, and an explorer from overseas – stand in nauseating sunlight around a kind of shallow pit, at the centre of which an execution machine has been erected. The machine is rusted-over and cracked. It looks like some hysterical futurist’s remodelling of a four-post bed, complete with brass rods, coils of mechanical riggings, and a sharp, pen-like, battery-powered needle. Indifferently the explorer stares at the edifice as the officer describes what it is and how it works. With a little too much enthusiasm for anyone’s comfort, he explains to his esteemed guest that the prisoner is forced to lie naked and face-down on the machine’s “bed”. A cotton gag is forced into his mouth. The needle, which he calls the “harrow”, cuts the words of the law into the unfortunate man’s back. The harrow works extremely slowly – the whole process takes about twelve hours – and so powerful, so relentless is the attending pain that the prisoner, in some mysterious and soulful and emblematically Kafkan way, begins to “understand” why he has been punished. A perverse enlightenment takes place – necessarily at the moment of death. The prisoner feels the shape and source of his guilt; he reads his own judgement, not with his eyes, but “in his wounds”.
It takes the supposedly civilized explorer quite a bit longer than the reader to apprehend the barbarity of this practice, but eventually he does. When at last he declares his outrage, he does so gently, diplomatically. “I do not approve of your procedure,” he says, but he follows the statement with a string of qualifiers. It doesn’t matter, however. The judge has been judged, and since the officer is also in effect the executioner, it follows that he must be put to death, too. “Then the time has come,” he sighs. He goes about undressing; he toys with the harrow and the designer so that they’ll fit his own body and his own crime – that being the crime of injustice. It is clear that the officer is hoping to discover something of the same transcendental agony he has witnessed time and time again on the faces of the condemned, but his beloved machine fails him. After all, the thing is completely falling apart. And so, instead of the protracted, euphoric torture he expects and wants, he is killed quickly and bloodily, without a touch of grace.
As I said earlier, writing about Kafka is hard. Even summarizing Kafka is hard, and this little precis of mine leaves out a number of key details, some of which I’ll get to later. Though with a story as ambiguous as this, the reader can never say for certain which details are philosophically significant and which details are ornamental in the realist sense, which are merely there to give the piece its textures and flavours. Since no one can be sure, it seems to me that the only just summary of ‘In the Penal Colony’ would be a summary with exactly the same amount of words as ‘In the Penal Colony,’ and therefore would be ‘In the Penal Colony.’
Still, even in outline one can trace the lineaments of Kafka’s lifelong obsessions: technology and death, and the coeternal bonds they share; the law, its contradictions and caprices, its inscrutabilities; the problem of language and the higher problem of literature. World War One is certainly present in some ghostly way, and Kafka seems to be the first writer to register the very modern phenomenon of body-metal fusion, i.e. the demented commingling of skin and blood with steel and iron and sharpened nickel when the ‘soft machine’ of the body encounters the hard stuff of mechanised weapons (a diabolically unequal collision which seems to us now, after Burroughs, and especially after Ballard, to gesture at the very essence of modernity in its most malign form).
Images and noises from the war are definitely circulating in the story’s central nervous system, but Kafka’s concerns about literature, especially about his own work, feel particularly pronounced here, and may point us towards something like understanding. It is the writer’s own juddering pulse, I suspect, and not the pulse of Europe, that we hear thumping at the story’s dingy heart.
In an 1851 essay entitled ‘On the Suffering of the World’, Schopenhauer suggested (in tones which Kafka must have somewhat relished) that the central fact of life – and not only its central fact but its central meaning – was pain. Pain had none of the ephemeralities, faults, and ambiguities of pleasure. Pleasure was a negative state, easily dismissed, whereas pain, true pain, was impossible to ignore. ‘A quick test of [this] assertion’ he wrote, ‘would be to compare the feelings of an animal engaged in eating another with those of the animal being eaten.’ Kafka would have relished that, too, I think.
Schopenhauer actually uses the phrase ‘penal colony’ in his essay. He considers it useful to accustom oneself to ‘regarding this world as a place of atonement, a sort of penal colony.’ In order to see the world with any degree of clarity, one must see it as a zone of punishment. The concept of original sin is given a new value here, taking on a strange, modern, decidedly Kafkan shape: we are all of us guilty, and life itself is the punishment.
Of course, Kafka had a talent for suffering, but like Bellow’s Herzog, he ‘suffered in style’. The melodramatic despair that we encounter in the diaries (Typical quote: “People label themselves with all sorts of adjectives. I can only pronounce myself as nauseatingly miserable beyond repair”) for the most part is delicately excised from the fiction, so that only the cold philosophic beauty is left. Fiction was the only place suffering could be made use of, but the priestly devotion he showed to his craft tended to bring up only more agonies. This was a crucial paradox for Kafka: writing soothed his immediate pain while simultaneously spawning new, and often worse forms of pain. It was like a powerful medicine whose side-effects were nastier than the disease itself.
With this in mind, one could read ‘In the Penal Colony’ as a dream of perfect literature. The machine which fills the story is hideous, but it is also beautiful. While the human characters are variously described as filthy, or sweaty, or like animals, this one character, and its mechanisms and geometries, are afforded loving attention
The Bed and the Designer were of the same size and looked like two dark wooden chests. The Designer hung about two meters above the Bed; each of them was bound at the corners with four rods of brass that flashed out rays in the sunlight. Between the chests shuttled the Harrow on a ribbon of steel.
Might it be that Kafka is identifying himself with the machine? Or, if not himself, the strong, mindless, unpitying writer he would like to be? After all, the words of the machine are not engraved in the mind but through the flesh and onto the soul. The ‘enlightenment’ which breaks out on the features of the condemned is apparently so alluring that the officer is willing to endure twelve hours of torture for it. Which radical artist wouldn’t desire, at least notionally and in his own grotesque way, to build an object of such godlike persuasive power, to construct sentences with the stuff of final understandings inside of them? Even if those understandings came at the cost of mutilation and death?
These are the kinds of bizarre questions Kafka tends to provoke. He is best consulted late at night, when a certain aura of melancholy has come into your room out of nowhere and all your strongest convictions are suddenly thin as the page of a book. With ‘In the Penal Colony’, you begin to think you’ve fit the story’s shape inside your head, and then you come to its perplexing coda. After the death of the officer, the other three men go to the nearest town. They find the grave of the old Commandant, the ‘soldier, judge, mechanic, chemist, and craftsman’ who built the writing machine. His epitaph reads: “Here rests the old Commandment. His adherents, who now must be nameless, have dug this grave and set up this stone. There is a prophecy that after a certain number of years the Commandment will rise again and will lead his adherents from this house to recover the colony. Have faith and wait!” You begin to wonder who this man really was. What exactly did the officer say about him? Did you miss something significant? So you go back to the beginning; you toil through the orgy of bloodshed once more. The world begins to look like nothing so much as an enormous penal colony, not Schopenhauer’s blackly nihilistic one, but Kafka’s more compelling one, shimmering and absurd, full of secrets and ghosts.