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Franz Kafka: Der Prozess (The Trial)

There is a good case for saying that this is the best novel of the twentieth century. If it is not, it is very close. The famous opening sentence Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning. sets the tone. From this very first sentence, Joseph K’s life goes to hell in a handbasket. He is accused of a crime not only that he did not commit but whose nature is not divulged to him. The novel follows K’s nightmare journey through the legal system where the Law is paramount and matters such as justice, rights and fairness are completely irrelevant.

K is interviewed or rather interrogated by the Inspector and then by an examining magistrate. He is given what might be called a preliminary where he vainly tries to defend himself but where, the whole time, he and we with him have the impression that he is somehow irrelevant to the trial which is going to go on regardless not only of his presence but of his very existence. He tries to defend himself but it is, of course, difficult to defend yourself when you do not know what you are defending yourself against. And he never knows.

Of course, the whole business has a very negative effect on his life – on his job, on his personal and professional relationships and on his health He has a lawyer to defend him but this person seems, of course, less than helpful. The inevitable happens and poor old Joseph K is doomed.

What makes this book so worthwhile is the picture of an ordinary human being – for Joseph K is an ordinary person – trapped in a system which is totally unaccountable, which gives no explanation, has seemingly no rationale but which is nevertheless relentless. In most novels, the hero or heroine might face seemingly overwhelming odds but always has at least the possibility of escaping. Right from the very first sentence, Joseph K has no such possibility. He is doomed, condemned from the start. His predicament can be said to be mirror the predicament of many of us living in the century.

Publishing history

First published 1925 by Verlag Die Schmiede
First English translation 1935 by Victor Gollancz