The Castle

  • Book Title: The Castle // Das Schloss
  • Author: Franz Kafka (Czechoslovakia)
  • Country of Origin: Czech Republic, formerly Czechoslovakia
  • Published: 1926
  • Genre: Philosophical/Dystopian Fiction, Comedy
  • Recommendation by: Cameron Givens

Let’s start with what this book isn’t.  It’s not the fun, light reading that you used to get of tired in the minutes before bed and it’s certainly not the exciting, plot-driven story that leaves you eager for the next chance to dive back in.  Most of all, it’s likely not the first book you’d reach for in a bookshelf full of Kafka’s works, let alone in the entire German language section of a well-stocked bookstore.  But I hope that, after reading this, your hand may pause for a moment longer as you reach past it for a better-known work or that, some day, you may even choose to read it for yourself.

So, what is The Castle?  It is an unfinished novel written in the 1920s that follows the tortuous, and ultimately fruitless, attempts of the protagonist, a man identified only as K., to acquire both a legally recognized status in the village in which he has recently arrived, as well as permission to carry out the land surveying work for which he was originally summoned.  Much of the novel is made up of K.’s discussions with either townspeople or officials of the castle, the mysterious governing body and bureaucratic epicenter of the town.  These conversations, like the logic within them, are delightfully complex from a language perspective (if you plan to read this in German, touch up on your Konjunktiv I, kids!) and made the book one of the more challenging and rewarding things I’ve read in some time.  But it’s important to not lose sight of the forest for the trees.

An Off-Broadway production of The Castle was written by David Fishelson in 2002.

An Off-Broadway production of The Castle was written by David Fishelson in 2002.

The first reason that this novel should, in my opinion, appeal to a wider audience is it’s wonderfully accurate and, at times, darkly humorous treatment of bureaucracy.  All of us have had our fair share of applications, official complaints, inquiries — the list goes on — and can understand, therefore, what it feels like to be fighting a seemingly invisible foe, falling through the cracks, or finding ourselves in illogical loops in the system.  Part of this novel’s brilliance is the way in which Kafka evokes the confusion, the self-doubt, that many of us feel during such processes: on the one hand, we root for K., and experience his victories and failings as our own; on the other, we are so alienated from every character (including K., for what do we know about him, after all, other than his gender and this lone initial?) that we don’t know what to believe in the inextricable web of conflicting information and backstories presented to us.

The next two interpretations I include not as endorsements, and not because they took precedence in how I read the work, but because of the resonance that they may find with other readers.  Max Brod, a friend to whom Kafka entrusted the destruction of his complete works upon his death but who, instead, began publishing them, highlights the novel’s religious overtones in the first edition’s afterword.  The castle sits perched above the village and, this physical stratification aside, functions in ways completely alien to the residents below.  K.’s destiny might as well be steered by the divine as by the secular since, either way, it seems to be out of his control.  The problem of good and evil, the incommensurability of the two realms, the limits of human comprehension—the possibilities for comparisons are manifold, but I’ll leave the rest to you and turn, instead, to the next interpretation.  Living as I do now in Germany, I can’t help but allow the current refugee situation to shape my reading.  K.’s arrival in a new place, his concern with finding housing for himself and someone he loves, his fight to secure a job (and all in a foreign “language,” albeit not of sounds and syllables, but of documents and records), seems far less fictional to me today than it might have before.

Finally, and most importantly, this novel is worth the read because it is a thought-provoking addition to the cannon of other masterpieces you’ll find surrounding it in the bookstore, each exploring some facet of the human condition.  It depends, I suppose, on which perspective you take, for there is a strong argument to be made that K. is nothing more than a Don Quixote some three hundred years later, pitifully ignorant of the futility of it all.  And what’s more, I’m not sure that even the tenets of Woolf or Dostoyevsky – that one good memory can be enough for redemption – can apply in poor K.’s case, for his time in the village is tough, indeed.  But I would prefer to read The Castle as a testament to man’s perseverance, to his constant striving; and some hearty endurance you will indeed require if, along with K., you stick it out to the end of this novel.