‘The Castle’ by Franz Kafka (1926)

Many comparisons have been drawn between Haruki Murakami and Franz Kafka and it certainly isn’t difficult to see the parallels: the sense of bewilderment and confusion Kafka creates in The Castle brings quickly to mind the surreal odysseys which take place in many of Murakami’s novels.

There are – of course – many differences and perhaps the main divergence of the two writers is that Kafka doesn’t write as touchingly as Murakami; doesn’t illustrate the human ache like Murakami can and the reader feels no natural sympathy with Kafka’s characters.  Although, this may well be the point, with Kafka – the more existential of the two writers – there are not meant to be any clear ‘sides’, the reader is not meant to feel an affinity with a character, as this implies trust and the world of The Castle is one where nothing is to be trusted or taken as given, instead everything is shifting and illusory.

But, to The Castle.  Or not, as the case may be, as the protagonist, K. spends the entire novel trying to reach the Castle, with many wrong turns and seeming successes before the novel ends abruptly in the middle of a sentence, Kafka having died before finishing it and K. along with him, no further progressed in his quest as when the novel began.  K.’s initial arrival is in the middle of the night, with heavy snow all around.  He is eventually and begrudgingly given shelter for the night, after first having to challenge the stringent formalities of the Castle.  This sets the tone for the whole novel, as he struggles to find purchase within a world of confusing autocratic bureaucracy and hostile villagers.

All in all, it reads like an anxiety dream: time has no authority, or continuity, the weather is constantly bad, it’s always dark, it’s impossible to get anywhere – physically through the snow and cold, or socially through advancement of position, even an understanding of what this position may be is illusive.  Ultimately, nothing in-particular happens.  However, the assertion by the Sunday Times that each time you read The Castle there is something new to find within, is certainly true; it is a rich novel with many facets.  The complicated nature of the world of The Castle is reflected in the often dense prose and in the curling of the story.  As one reads, one becomes dimly more aware of its abundance and close, repeated reading would most likely reward with different conclusions and stories each time.

The resonating image of the novel is Kafka’s depiction of a truly Modern world – a world of alienation, of frustrating pursuance of unobtainable goals, struggle, individualism, hopelessness and absurdity.  There remains a rallying call though, a glimmer of real hope (rather than the illusory twists and turns experienced by K.) through the character of Amalia – an outcast, resident in the village.  Her attitude, as described by her sister Olga is perhaps the only mantra we could and should all live by in an increasingly adversarial world:

‘She never panics, is scared of nothing, won’t ever lose patience.’

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