I haven’t read any Kafka in ages. I have a vague recollection of a very teenage, angst-driven encounter with Metamorphosis and Other Stories (the very copy and collection that this tale is from) many years ago and so when at some juncture back in the semi-haze that was last term another of my fantastically clever friends mentioned ‘In the Penal Colony’ in passing, I nodded, smiled and thought: ‘I sort of know what you’re talking about but I’m not 100% sure’ before resolving to go back and read it again as soon as the holiday began.
Well, more fool me. I read it late at night (error) and the result was a series of extremely unpleasant, eerie and increasingly gruesome dreams. The worlds Kafka draws are nightmareish and surreal at the best of times (of which there are very few to be lighted upon in his prose) and on my first night in a new house with no curtains, well let’s just say I slept with the light on.
If you are yet to come across this story, it tells of an Explorer (although I have heard from various sources that this translation is erroneous and would be better served by the word Researcher? Or Traveller? Anyone who can confirm or deny this please do…) who is invited to witness the execution of a Condemned Man effected by the Officer who is assisted/hindered at various intervals by the Soldier.
This fly-by-night synopsis may seem innocuous by our Hollywood/instant-news/TV-conditioned standards: gun violence, stabbings, even sexual violence have, these days, become entirely unremarkable in their appearance in popular culture or indeed on the news. The chilling power of this story is derived not from the plot but from the narrative voice; the characters’ various responses to the plot and of course, the horrifying piece of appartus that sits, menacingly, at the centre.
The narrative voice is entirely detached. It offers no judgement, no censureship of the fanatical Officer, proponent of the old order as epitomised by the Old Commandant and the machine that he designed. The machine in question scores the sentence into the flesh of the condemned repeatedly over a period of twelve hours using a series of needles and teeth. The Officer explains its workings to the Explorer with a kind of religious fervour, he caresses the machine as he readies it for action and will not permit another person to touch the plans that he carries with him in a briefcase. The narrative voice offers no comment. It relays the setting, a “small sandy valley, a deep hollow surrounded on all sides by naked crags” and recounts the actions and reactions of the characters but the tone of total, moral and emotional indifference remains. It remains in the face of an ingenious vehicle for human violence and an absurd justice system – the Officer is firm in his belief that no defence should be allowed because “guilt is never to be doubted”.
This indifference permeates the text and is perpetuated in its characters. In spite of the horror before him, the Explorer is hesitant, reluctant to intervene against the Officer citing his position as an outsider as protection from that responsibility. It is only when the machine begins to malfunction and its victim (I don’t want to spoil it if you haven’t read it…) is subject to, “plain murder” as opposed to, “exquisite torture” and the moment of spiritual enlightenment this supposedly offers that he is moved to intervene.
The inaction and indifference of the Explorer is in many ways, more disturbing than the fanaticism of the Officer. The Officer is an absurd character, unreal in the extremity of his adherence to an impossibly cruel and inhuman system. The Explorer, however, stands on the sidelines with faint fascination and a sense of unease when confronted with torture, injustice and cruelty; he intervenes only when the aesthetics of the process are threatened by the bloody reality of “a great spike” thrust through a forehead; he beats back those who would escape their unsavoury world with a knotted rope.
It is not the machine, nor the human ingenuity that gave rise to it that perpetuates the sustained sense of dread within this story (although the sheer nastiness of it does go a long way) but the familiar indifference of the voice that tells it and those who watch it unfold. Is it surprising then, given all that is going on around the world today that since I’ve re-read it, I’ve had real difficulty sleeping?