In the Penal Colony by Franz Kafka (1914)

Written in October 1914, this 30-page-long short story is possibly Kafka’s most harrowing and atrocious. It is also distinctly different from most of his other stories, in the following ways:

  • It does not feature a young, harrassed white collar worker
  • It is not set in Prague or a Central European location
  • It is not set over a long period of time (The Trial covers precisely one year, the Metamorphosis a number of months)

Instead the story is set in an unnamed European colony, somewhere in the Tropics, in a dry valley or canyon set amid rocky peaks and takes place in real time.

The Officer and the Explorer

The two main characters are The Explorer and The Officer.

They are inside a penal colony and since the Officer speaks French, presumably a French one. Briefly, the Officer outlines to the Explorer the nature of the big machine they’re standing next to. Prisoners who have offended against the peal colony’s strict rules are punished by being made to lie face down in the ‘Bed’ of the machine and then are firmly strapped in and have a gag inserted in their mouths.

The machine is then switched on and through an ingenious mechanical arrangement a series of sharp glass blades cut into the living skin of the prisoner, at first cutting a grim message – OBEY AUTHORITY – but then embroidering the text with an impenetrably complicated arrangement of curlicues and flourishes. The Officer shows the Explorer a piece of paper with the finished ‘design’ on it, but it looks to the Explorer like a solid mass of black. About six hours into the process the victim stops trying to scream and experiences a state of post-pain ‘enlightenment’. A few hours of further incisions later and they are dead. They are unstrapped from the machine and their body tipped into the nearby grave.

The Explorer is appalled. He keeps a dead straight face and sympathetic expression and suppresses his horror. He keeps glancing over at the condemned man who is covered in chains and kept on a leash by a soldier of the colony. The Officer tells him what brought the condemned man here. He is a servant tasked with protecting another officer. Every hour on the hour throughout the night he is meant to get up and salute the flag. One night the officer checked on him by getting up just before 2am and looking. The servant snoozed through the appropriate hour so the officer beat him, had him arrested and handed over to the Officer telling the story. It is for this ‘offence’ that the condemned man is to have the entire surface of his body covered with incised lines till he dies of shock.

So far, so horrifying. Up till about now this story gave me a strong feeling of an H.G. Wells story, because of the structure and the fact it is about a piece of machinery. By structure I mean it is told in real time, the entire story takes place in one movement without any flashbacks or change of scene. It could be very easily staged. And the focus on a fantastical piece of machinery is not unlike, for example, the way the Time Traveller explains his man-sized contraption to his hearers.

In this respect, in being a straightforward piece of exposition, the first half is oddly unKafkaesque. But about half way through the story begins to change tone, introducing two characteristic Kafkaesque qualities.

Entropy

One is decline and fall. Or entropy. The theory of entropy states that energy in a fixed system always tends towards equilibrium, towards its lowest state. In other words, the universe is running down. To put it more picturesquely, things always decay.

Thus 1. as the Officer’s exposition continues, he is forced to concede that the machine is not the perfect piece of gleaming technology it once was. A loose cog makes it appallingly noisy, spare parts are difficult to get, the gag has to be reused with successive prisoners biting down no all the previous incumbents’ sweat and vomit.

And all this is 2. symptomatic of the general decline in the penal colony itself. It used to be run by the Commandant, who the Officer reveres, who designed and had built the appalling machine. In his day the sharp glass vials which incise the skin of the victim also released acid to incise the lines deeper into their skin. The old Commandant knew about Justice and Honour, says the bright-eyed Officer. More so than the new Commandant who is inclined to be lax on the prisoners and surrounds himself with ‘ladies’ who are always begging for ‘mercy’ and who has let the incision machine run down.

Weirdness

The other element of the Kafkaesque is just the weird way that people behave. The Explorer thought he was being given a free demonstration of this appalling machine but now the Officer begins to explain his motivation. He wants to the Explorer to defend the use of the machine to the new Commandant in front of everyone, of his followers and supporters. He is spending so much time explaining its excellence because he wants the Explorer to use his independent position and his reputation to praise the machine and lobby the new Commandant for spare parts and repairs.

The Explorer refuses to do so. He says he’ll have a private word with the Commandant, and he’s due to leave soon anyway.

And then, in a Kafkaesque gesture which has nothing to do with real people or real life but is a compelling example of Kafka’s ability to incorporate dream logic into his stories, the Officer orders the intended victim (who has, by this stage, been bound and tied into the machine) to be released, and climbs into it himself, demands to be tied down (even though straps and other bits of the machine break or show signs of decay) and then the machine turned on so that he can experience the workings of the machine he fetishises.

No way would this happen in real life, but Kafka’s stories aren’t real life, they are nightmares.

And in line with Kafkaesque rule of entropy, the machine in fact begins to run riot, harrowing the Officer’s skin much more haphazardly than intended, and numerous cogs start bulging and flying out of the top part of the machinery. Within a few minutes it has blown up, its last act being to stab a long metal stud right through the Officer’s head, so that he never gets to experience the sixth-hour moment of ‘epiphany’ which he so longed for.

It is a failure, a shabby flop, like almost everything in a Kafka story.

In the last few pages the Explorer is taken back by the soldier and the prisoner, wreathed in smiles at the fate he has escaped, back to the colony proper, the populous settlement, where they show him the grave of the old Commandant before wandering off into a teahouse. The Explorer goes to the docks and descends the steps to the sea where he bargains with a rowboat to take him out to the steamer docked in the harbour which will take him away. At the last moment the soldier and prisoner come running down the steps towards him but, in the last gesture of the story, the Explorer pushes them both back and away from the boat. He is definitely not taking them with him.

Thoughts

From a stylistic point of view it is very interesting to see that Kafka could, when needed, write very clear, brief, descriptive prose. The description of the machine and the initial statements by the Officer are extremely crisp and to the point, and the Explorer’s responses are laconic and understated. It is only half way through that the Officer begins to go mad and it is fascinating to watch Kafka’s style change accordingly as the Officer stops giving an exposition of the machine, and starts making more complex, long-winded and self-justifying accusations about the new Commandant, the kind of long-winded tortuous justifications we are used to from the novels.

It is fascinating to be taken on a journey from the clear expository prose which, as I said, reminds me a bit of H.G. Wells, and then watch that slowly melt and swirl and become more imbrued with guilt and paranoia and sadism and masochism as the story turns into nightmare before your eyes, as the elements of decay and guilt and horror come to the fore and it turns into Kafka.

As to the content, I leave others to comment.


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