Thursday, June 21, 2012
Franz Kafka, “In the Penal Colony,” 1919
the harrows for the legs. This small cutter is the only one designated for the head. Is that clear to you?” He leaned forward to the Traveler in a friendly way, ready to give the most comprehensive explanation."
-- Franz Kafka, "In the Penal Colony"
Kafka's story of an observing Traveller in an unnamed penal colony is particularly unsettling for the fact that it describes horrible physical torture in a manner that mimics an operations manual, or something equally technical. Indeed, death is centre stage in "The Penal Colony", but not as an abstract concept. Here, the breaking down of biology, of the human body, as it is exposed to physical torment, accentuates the struggle that our biology effects in a bid to defy death. It's all a bit traitorous; our bodies won't just cease in the face of inevitable suffering.
Theories have been put forth about Kabbalah traditions being in some way important to interpretations of Kafka's story. It's not the kind of story that will easily find any kind of "definitive" interpretation, and indeed, interpretations are many and varies widely.You read Kafka, and when you finish, what you generally say to yourself is "Yes, but what did it mean?" In my opinion, this is both a sign of a great writer, as well as the power of language (also somewhat traitorous and evading, considering we invented it). Context always changes, which makes meaning mutable. Kafka goes beyond making us simply think about what a story might mean. Rather, it seems to want to make us ask the question "What does it not mean?" Somehow, this is more confrontational, and has the potential for making us feel, rather than just curious, desperate to know what the author is trying to say, but at the same time terrified of finding out.
Reviewed from The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, Eds. Anne and Jeff Vandermeer