Franz Kafka – the dark rooms and the superlative machine

Image: Lin Barrie


There are many, in the Kafkaesque fabric, the spaces of the domestic and public-administrative spheres under the mantle of nonsense

The domestic and official compartments

It is difficult not to be surprised by the figuration of spaces in the novelistic prose of Franz Kafka (1883-1924). For the reader To metamorphose (1915) O process (1925) O Castle (1926) and The missing or America(1927) focuses on coexistence with characters enclosed and entangled in rooms of singular grandeur. They are compartments where they retreat – living areas – and rooms that they visit in less than favorable situations, whose description and inappropriateness in relation to the functions for which, in theory, they were designed enhance the obscurity of the writer's pages.

By way of reference, it is worth remembering that Gregor Samsa's room has a unique significance: the floor and walls covered by the animal retain a viscous streak, traced by sap with an adhesive morphology; With this friction, the traveling salesman's body-envelope stamps his signature on the physical footage of the apartment. During To metamorphose, the room expresses these seasons and mutations: the bedroom becomes a cell that hides an unnameable family secret, takes on the air of an infirmary, becomes a receptacle for rubble, until it announces itself as a burial chamber.

In fact, in the Kafkaesque framework, there are many spaces in the domestic and public-administrative spheres under the mantle of nonsense (bedroom, living room, anteroom, kitchen, study, study, habitable attic). Such quadrants and corners, which tend to have a non-standard geometric proportion (large or limited dimensions), with rarefied lighting and low ceilings (asphyxiating rooms due to poor ventilation, resulting from the lack of doors and windows).

This topography, therefore, manifests eccentric versatility, to the point that a classroom, at night, becomes a dormitory for coitus and the sleeping stage of Frida and the surveyor in The castle (the couple, in fact, as soon as it dawns, they urgently need to take care of restoring the area, because the children arrive there to study).

As much as it is incongruous, for the reader of The process, is to discover that, on Sundays, the living room of one of the apartments located in a building in a peripheral area, with stairs and narrow corridors, becomes a space for court hearings. Nonsense like this – thus manifested in a twilight threshold, that is, on par with the status of the dream, thanks to which some spark paradoxically imposes itself as truth – stand out in the form of discursive artifices in Franz Kafka.

In other words, the Prague fiction writer's statement plays a very interesting game: by parading, in a cycle, incidents of an illogical nature (something familiar to the world of dreams and nightmares, a scenario in which there is no safe route), a reasoning cohesive, syllogistic, is elucidated in direct voice, or is organized in the thoughts of a character, in the sedimentation of a dense and reiterative report, exposing to a given interlocutor the contradictions, gaps, fragile paths (of risk) involved in the choice of this or that branch of ideas. In the course of these long speeches, we point to a certain intellection of fallacious rhetoric: cunning circumlocution.

The syntax used undeniably reflects an exercise in tenacious, exhaustive and persuasive thought. As a writing that takes the genre of essay, it stages hypotheses, proofs, counter-proofs; Above all, it denounces the contradiction inherent in the verb: polysemic rifts.

Regarding romance The process, I stick to these diameters: lawyer Huld’s room and kitchen; the storage room at the bank where Josef K. acts as attorney; the painter Titorelli's bedroom. The three narrative sequences that unfold in these locations have elements in common: they exchange experiences of credible distinction with unusual events; by contiguity, the following come to the fore: body, torture and trap.

[First] Lawyer Huld's room lacks lighting: the coroner receives his clients late at night. His fragile health forces him to watch them from bed. Leni, the nurse, is libidinous: she harasses Josef K. and other men who seek care from her boss. Notable is the scene in which the protagonist meets the merchant Bock at the lawyer's house.

Leni leaves them in the kitchen; In this space, a prolonged conversation takes place between the two men (an exchange of speeches as only Franz Kafka created: highly ordered, cohesive reasoning, pregnant with precision – yet studded with morphosyntactic indicators converging to invalidate the premises that seemed certain and irrefutable). The curious thing is that, throughout this dialogue, K. – initially averse to the figure of this merchant – shows sympathy for him, his hands remain joined to his, juxtaposed; K. is lavishing affection.

When the nurse announces that the lawyer is waiting for Josef K. in the dormitory, and that, upon receiving him, he comments on the reason for her harassing men present in the house, she states that every subject in the investigation phase, while processing his legal case, is taken for unparalleled beauty and virility. Here is the lawyer’s statement: “The accused are precisely more beautiful (…); It can only be, therefore, the process initiated that, in some way, adheres to them”.[I]

Then, after K. expressed his intention to dispense with the lawyer's services, the merchant enters the room accompanied by Leni, and, in this camera, a bizarre action of vassalage and humiliation is exposed (a hand-kissing show). Block, urged on by the nurse, crawls to the foot of the bed, uttering words of submission to the bachelor. A sadomasochistic-looking gesture?

“– Who is your lawyer then?

“You,” said Block.

– And besides me? – asked the lawyer.

– No one but you – said Block […].”[ii]

[Second] In the wake, I briefly refer to another episode sui generis. One day, K. realizes that a tiny room in the bank, used as a storage room, is leaking a trail of light — an individual is whipping three employees. Nudity and pleading fill this Kafkaesque chapter. In the cubicle, one “[…] of the men, who clearly dominated the others and was the first to attract attention, was dressed in a type of dark leather clothing, leaving his neck bare to his chest and his arms entirely exposed […] ]”.

“- So can this stick cause pain like that? — asked K. […].

– We will have to be completely naked – said Willem.

– Ah, good – said K., looking at the spanker carefully; He was tanned like a sailor and had a wild, rested face […]”.[iii]

[Third] Finally, I report to Titorelli's room. To get to the dormitory-studio of this artist who paints portraits of judges and magistrates who appear there to pose for this eccentric citizen, Josef K. sneaks through extremely narrow corridors and staircases – and noisy children pull at his clothes, They peer through cracks in windows and doors. Here is Titorelli's observation addressed to the protagonist: “The judge that I am now painting, for example, always comes through the door next to the bed, I even gave him a key to that door so that he, even if I am not at home, can come to me. wait here in the studio. You would lose all respect for judges if you heard the curses with which I greet him when he climbs into my bed early in the morning […]”.

“As soon as [K.] had taken off his jacket, a girl shouted:

– He already took off his jacket!


– The girls believe that I am going to paint you and that is why you undress – said the painter.”[iv]

Well: enclosure, brutality and punishment are combined with other appeals from the body – complaints of a lascivious, licentious nature.

The machine with the rakes

The soap opera in the penal colony, according to Franz Kafka's biographical references, was written in October 1914, simultaneously with the writing of The process – year in which the First World War began. By the way, Franz Kafka, aged 31 at the time, was not called up to fight for the Austro-Hungarian Empire – unlike several of his friends; and certainly for these reasons: being a Jew, having fragile health and working since 1908 as a permanent employee in a semi-state company (the Workers' Accident Insurance Institute).[v]

In this context, the military arsenal that serves as a guise in historical conflicts of this magnitude is, metonymically, represented in the narrative as a torture machine, whose mechanics and gear take center stage and prevail as a bulwark of the absurd.

The unique space, entrusted to the development of the intrigue, is the penitentiary island, located in a tropical strip where the machine is installed. There were public sessions there in which the audience could watch the triumphal operation of the device. This machine, in its extremely efficient operation, allows an individual sentenced to the death penalty to lie down naked and, for a long time, become adrift from the equipment's task, ending a life in the course of approximately six hours. It is, without a doubt, a cruel spectacle – a sinister barbarism.

However, it turns out that its days would be numbered. The reader is informed that the new commander intends to extinguish this practice – which is why he invites a foreign explorer to see the unique device. In this field, whoever welcomes the researcher identifies himself as an officer (in fact, in the narrative, no character names are revealed).

In addition to the officer and the explorer, the soldier and the condemned man are exclusively present in the arena where the machine is fixed (the soldier watches the man – for now half-dressed – who has not been informed of his execution). A parenthesis: in this aspect, there is similarity with the tragic experience of Josef K., who receives on his birthday the court summons without justification nor any notation regarding the crime committed. This ellipse continues until the last page of the book, when the protagonist is led to an alley by two anonymous men who stab him in the heart with a knife.

The work in the penal colony it underlines the officer’s obsession – his fixed idea, his madness. Once fascinated by the engineering, technical maintenance and permanence of equipment on this penitentiary ground, the militiaman attempts to convince the visitor that, without his help, it would become impossible to dissuade the current commander of the project from reformulating the laws in force on such a site, disauthorizing and extinguishing abuses and violence of this magnitude.

This is notably because the official supports the maintenance of the authoritarian and bloody regime. Hence the insane conduct of this character when giving a speech in support of public execution – an insane compliment to the lack of defense rights of a sacrificed person, who is subject to the arbitrary actions of a certain hierarchical superior (the slightest disrespect for authority is enough to lead to death).

The officer fills his eyes as he shows off the structure of the machinery; the jingoist, accustomed to the pedagogy of atrocity, details to the visitor the function and specifications of each part of the automaton object exposed to the sun. The most curious thing: among the phases that precede the condemned man's annihilation, is the writing of the sentence on his body with a rake, piercing his flesh. Or better yet: a phrase taken from the commandment is tattooed as a perpetual rebuke.

Here is what the officer said, addressing the explorer: “[…] Don’t you want to get closer to observe the needles? […] Each long needle has a short one next to it. The long one is the one that writes, the short one squirts water to wash away the blood and keep the writing always clear. The water and blood are then carried here in these channels and finally flow into the main channel, whose drainage pipe leads to the pit.”[vi]

He says more, as he holds his hand on the arm of his interlocutor and points upwards: “– There – in the designer are the gears that control the movement of the rake; they are arranged according to the drawing that accompanies the content of the sentence”.[vii]

The officer pulls out some pages from his leather wallet and shows them, from a certain distance, to the explorer, who cannot decipher anything. These are labyrinthine lines: it would require more than an effort to decode, it would perhaps require special learning to uncover the cryptogram.

It is interesting, therefore, to come across in this fiction the presence of such a graphic device, strictly speaking, unintelligible. That is: a nebulous diagram that is inscribed in a narrative of disturbing latitude, tearing the human skin and defining itself in the body that, about to expire, fainting, will be dispatched from the machine like a specter.

In this fable, the author would warn of something that resonates as a double legacy.

[First essence of its verbal-aesthetic manufacture; Kafka's text materializes an unparalleled ambiguity, achieved by morphosyntactic procedures – Modesto Carone, his main translator into Portuguese, said it well.

[Second] The allegory undertaken through this murderous machine ratifies something that Kafka's criticism reiterates: the sensitivity of the Jewish man of literature in predicting Nazi-fascism, totalitarianism, anti-Semitism, gas chambers.

Em in the penal colony, the explorer's non-consent to the continuation of this torture practice leads the officer to demand the condemned man's removal from the machine and take his place, in an act of an obscure nature, which admits, at least, these two keys of interpretation: (i) Such is the officer's desperation in listing the engineering predicates of the device, that he had to perform them, expressing them didactically with his own body; or (ii) the officer would have given up, that is, when calculating the gear jamming and surge, the character would have committed suicide.

After all, in this tense and agonizing passage of the plot (its climax), the equipment's mismatch, the mismatch, the incommunicability and the disarticulation of the parts that make up the bearing chain and plateaus shine through – everything, therefore, in disjunction.

Günther Anders, author of a magnificent essay on his fellow countryman, Kafka: pro and con, points out: “[…] Kafka's prose is much closer to 'plastic art', because, for him and for the people in his world, life is so tangled that it doesn't move; and also because this immobility can only be established as an image.”[viii] He adds: “[…] what he translates into images are not concepts, but situations.”[ix]

Deafening, continuous situations – onomatopoeic massacres.

*Ricardo Iannace He is a professor of communication and semiotics at the Faculty of Technology of the State of São Paulo and of the Postgraduate Program in Comparative Studies of Portuguese Language Literatures at FFLCH-USP. Author, among other books, of Murilo Rubião and the architectures of the fantastic (edusp).


[I]Franz Kafka, The process, translation: Modesto Carone, São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1997, p. 226.

[ii]Ditto, p. 235.

[iii]Idem, ibidem, pp. 105-07.

[iv]Franz Kafka, The process, translation: Modesto Carone, São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1997, pp. 189-90.

[v]See Paul Strathern, Kafka in 90 minutes, translation: Maria Luiza X. de A. Borges, Rio de Janeiro: Zahar, 2009.

[vi]Franz Kafka, “In the Penal Colony”. In:_____. See yousaid / In the penal colony, translation: Modesto Carone, São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1998, p. 40.

[vii]Ditto, p. 42.

[viii]Gunther Anders, Kafka: pro and con — the case files, translation: Modesto Carone, 2nd ed. São Paulo: Cosac Naify, 2007, p. 74.

[ix]Ditto, p. 56.

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