The story is set in an unnamed penal colony. It describes the last use of an elaborate torture and execution device that carves the sentence of the condemned prisoner on his skin in a script before letting him die, all in the course of twelve hours. As the plot unfolds, the reader learns more and more about the machine, including its origin, and original justification.
Before you read this, I really recommend reading In the Penal Colony first, because I’m going to be getting in-depth. It’s available here for free and isn’t all that long!
I can’t believe it! A Kafka story/novella that I actually liked and understood!
I’ve had trouble with Kafka in the past. I’ve found him really difficult to read, because while I understand what he’s getting at and respect that, I couldn’t bring myself to actually enjoy the reading experience. I also felt like the symbolism was choking, making the meaning so obscure that it was beyond comprehension in some cases.
In the Penal Colony isn’t really like the other short stories of his I’ve read. It’s much more straightforward and easy to interpret. It’s quite bloody and violent, but it makes sense to me to have it that way. There’s an overarching sense of confinement, menace and horror, which is pretty common in Kafka’s works, but I think it’s really prevalent in this one. I was actually starting to feel a bit jumpy, because I wasn’t sure where he was going to go with the story. That, to me, is the mark of a master.
Kafka wrote The Penal Colony in 1914, shortly after he had broken an engagement and while he was writing The Trial. He actually stopped writing The Trial to write this- I wonder what brought him to that decision? I’ve not read The Trial yet, so maybe I’ll find out then.
I went to a lecture the other day about the use of comedy and laughter in Kafka’s work, focusing mainly on this story. I found it incredibly interesting and insightful, especially since I’d just read it the night before! It was also my first proper seminar as an academic researcher, which was a bit exciting. I even got a free pastry! I was honestly trying to work out how anyone could find anything particularly funny in his work, but now I really see what they were getting at.
Anyway, it’s interesting how Kafka uses elements of slapstick humour to poke fun at sovereign power. He diverts attention from the execution of the Officer in order to watch the ridiculous behaviour of the (formerly) Condemned Man and the Soldier, thus depriving the Officer of his attention. The Condemned Man is portrayed in an animalistic kind of way, referred to as “a dog”. This, and his absolutely useless role in society, plus the irony of his interest in the Machine, makes him a really comedic figure.
The lack of transcendence the Officer gets is also kind of comedic. He goes on and on about how the prisoner’s torture gives them a point of transcendence, a moment of enlightenment when they achieve recognition of the sin they’re being executed for. He puts himself into the Machine with the recommendation “Be Just”… but the Machine breaks down. He is then mutilated, but not in the slow, 12 hour torture he intends. The final spike through the forehead is really an “Oh, you stupid idiot” moment. He never gets his moment of enlightenment. The Machine prohibits that.
Apparently Kafka read this aloud in Munich in 1916, which caused people to flee, faint and assert that there was a foul stench of blood in the air as he spoke. That’s pretty intense! I’d say that’s ever so slightly exaggerated, but still… it’s a cool picture. It must have been pretty harrowing for people, particularly as it was midway through the bloodiest war in history.
I found the ending to be a bit abrupt. I’m told this is because Kafka himself was dissatisfied with it, but needed to have an ending to get it published. There’s actually several more variants in his notebooks, but he chose this one to publish with.
Overall, I quite enjoyed this, which is pretty cool and unbelievable! I’d recommend this to anyone struggling with Kafka but who wants to like him. I’d also say if you’re interested in just punishment and ideas of transcendence, this might be a good story to read. It’s a bit gory but not terrible.