““The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword.”
― George R.R. Martin
Are we always responsible for our actions?
The last two years, for the month of June, I wrote about a short story that was available online each day of the month… you can see the list for 2014 and 2015 in the comments for this page. It seemed like a good idea at the time. My blog readership fell precipitously and nobody seemed to give a damn about what I was doing – which was a surprising amount of work.
Because of this result, I’m going to do it again this year.
Today’s story, for day eighteen – In the Penal Colony, by Franz Kafka
Read it online here:
Today we have another story that I have read before – I’ve read everything by Kafka I can get my grimy paws on – long ago. It is worth a re-visit, the story is more subtle and complex than it seems at first.
Kafka is considered one of the literary giants – though he barely published anything while he was alive. On his deathbed he made his best friend promise to destroy all his unpublished work. Thank goodness he didn’t. So Kafka’s fame is directly due to the betrayal of the person he trusted most.
I could not be any other way.
In the Penal Colony is about as horrific a tale as you are going to come across. Some backwater third-world tropical colony has a megalomaniacal tinpot ruler (the Old Commandant) that devises a complex and gruesome means of torture and execution. With the aid of his faithful lackey (The Officer) he goes ahead and, with great fanfare, orchestrates a reign of terror across the land.
Now, we don’t get to visit this horror in its heyday – it’s years later and the Old Commandant is long gone. However, aided by The Officer, still faithful to the abominable vision, the plague of pain and fear continues to stumble along of its own accord. None of the characters is even given a name. The central character is offended by the torture and system of rude justice – but he is so numbed it’s hard for him to do anything concrete about it. Even the intended victim doesn’t seem to care much about what is going to happen to him.
The Officer recognized that he was in danger of having his explanation of the apparatus held up for a long time. So he went to the Traveler, took him by the arm, pointed with his hand at the Condemned Man, who stood there stiffly now that the attention was so clearly directed at him—the Soldier was also pulling on his chain—and said, “The matter stands like this. Here in the penal colony I have been appointed judge. In spite of my youth. For I stood at the side of our previous Commandant in all matters of punishment, and I also know the most about the apparatus. The basic principle I use for my decisions is this: Guilt is always beyond a doubt. Other courts could not follow this principle, for they are made up of many heads and, in addition, have even higher courts above them. But that is not the case here, or at least it was not that way with the previous Commandant.
On reading the story again, despite the detailed description of the ghastly apparatus, the most horrible impression is of the bureaucratic, inhuman, machinery of abuse careening forward on its own floundering momentum. Only the degeneration of time can stop it, like it stops everything.
It’s all so….