The frustration a reader encounters with The Trial is a key to understanding what makes it a great novel. It is a series of absurdities reflecting the very nature of human institutions.
Joseph K., a prominent bank official, awakens one morning to find himself under arrest. He doesn’t know what he’s charged with, and his efforts to find out only lead to further entanglement. The book is both intriguing and exasperating – just like Joseph K.’s predicament.
The men sent to arrest him may or may not be policemen. The “court” to which he is sent to trial turns out to be in a large tenant building where other men line the corridors waiting for something. The judge lives in the courtroom and seems intimidated by the defendant’s outrage. Josef tries to keep his job while stumbling up one blind alley after another.
A lawyer informs Josef that everything in trials is weighted heavily against the accused, who has no access to court records and no legal right to mount a defense. And one needs the good will of lawyers to obtain their help at all. Then Josef is referred to a source who says there are three possibilities of acquittal, but he knows of no total acquittals because nothing in court proceedings is ever recorded. Meanwhile, Josef’s budding relationships with women seem to fizzle out, as though the author decided they weren’t worth pursuing.
Ultimately, Josef encounters a priest, a somewhat godly figure who seems to understand it all. Yet even he can offer only a series of inconclusive explanations. Cryptically he says, “the court doesn’t want anything from you. It accepts you when you come and it lets you go when you leave.”
An important element of this novel is the run-on nature of its narration. Lengthy paragraphs with no breaks lead to unresolved situations. In this scenario, people are in the grip of powerful forces beyond their control, and they all end up the same regardless of what choices they make.
The Trial is a mystery story, entertaining but without the resolutions we expect from mystery novels. If you accept it on its own terms, you’ll find it a cynical, yet insightful commentary on the human condition.