Weird #15: “In the Penal Colony” by Franz Kafka (1919)

“In the Penal Colony” (translated by Ian Johnston) was an interesting choice to include in The Weird. The obvious Franz Kafka story to include would have been The Metamorphosis (included in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s Big Book of Classic Fantasy), which is certainly weird and alienating in the way much weird fiction is, including that of Alfred Kubin, which Kafka’s writer’s group influenced. But perhaps The Metamorphosis would have been too obvious a choice. Which begs the question: What exactly makes “In the Penal Colony” a better choice for this anthology?

The editors state that “the story’s reliance on strange ritual and its luminous clarity are grounded in a modernity that … represented a new approach to weird fiction” (133). Where the supernatural was a central aspect of the weird tale in earlier writers, Kafka has no concern with the past or its superstitions. Instead, it is grounded firmly the mechanistic horror of modernity, the “strange ritual” of which, while not occult, does tend to release humanity’s seemingly innate barbarism.

The elaborate torture device at the centre of the story, through its level of detail, becomes immense, becoming a symbol for more than the brutal task it is meant to accomplish. In fact, the story can be interpreted as an allegory for the cruelty exacted in modern society under the name of justice, and the tendency of good-meaning people to passively tolerate it.

It throws up a host of associations, from the punishing justice systems in the European colonies of the time to the cruelty of Nazi Germany. In contemporary society, it speaks to debates about the death penalty and torture. It can also read as an allegory of how cruelty is enacted and tolerated in prisons, the justice system, and police force, particularly as it affects BIPOCs.

Franz Kafka

The story is about an Explorer who who is invited to the penal colony by the Commandant. There he receives a guided tour of the torture apparatus by the Officer, an old man who has been maintaining and running the machine for years. The machine itself is composed of three parts: the Bed, the Inscriber, and the Harrow, the purpose of which is to lower the tips of needles onto the body and carry out the execution.

The Condemned is fitted into the Bed of the machine, where he is strapped down. Responding to the Explorer’s questions, the Officer explains that the Condemned Man has not been told his own sentence. “It would be useless to give him that information,” says the Officer. “He experiences it on his own body” (136). Indeed, the Inscriber marks the bodies of the criminals with the name of their crime. This exotic form of torture certainly pegs the story as weird, much as the torture in Georg Heym’s “The Dissection” (1913).

The Officer describes his method of ascertaining the man’s guilt:

Guilt is always beyond a doubt. […] If I had first summoned the man and interrogated him, the result would have been confusion. He would have lied, and if I had been successful in refuting his lies, he would have replaced them with new lies, and so on. But now I have him and I won’t release him again.

(136)

This is not “guilty before being proven innocent.” The Officer’s idea of justice is “guilty.” Period. The Officer’s sense of justice is a travesty, and closer to fascism than anything else.

The Officer explains the man was instructed to stand watch and salute his captain on the hour. However, the captain apparently complained that when the man was to salute at two o’clock, he had fallen asleep. The Officer believes the captain’s testimony, calling it “the facts” (136). He doesn’t have to hear anything more, taking the testimony of the captain at face value, without hearing the Condemned’s story.

This reminds me of how Black victims of police shootings are so often presumed to be guilty, or violent, when police are called to respond to a crisis or a disturbance. In such altercations, efforts are rarely, if ever, made to learn both sides of the story. Perhaps the stories are heard eventually, but only long after the Black victim has been needlessly killed. The Officer represents this tendency to take the complaint at face value and use it as an excuse to perpetrate cruel, unnecessary violence in the name of “justice.” Though Kafka’s story was published in 1919, he anticipated not only the injustices of the Nazis but described the dynamics of injustice that still persist in North American society after hundreds of years.

The Explorer, a foreigner in the penal colony, believes that “the injustice of the process and the inhumanity of the execution were beyond a doubt” (139). However, he finds that actually taking action to destroy the machine that inflicts such unjust suffering is precarious. He reflects on his status as an outsider, saying, “It is always questionable to intervene decisively in strange circumstances. If he wanted to condemn this execution, or even hinder it, people would say to him: You are a foreigner–keep quiet” (139). Non-intervention keeps him from taking decisive action.

Franz Kafka statue (Prague)

Furthermore, the Officer has his own designs. He gives the Explorer a long speech about the machine has seen better days–it has a squeaky wheel, and replacement parts are hard to come by. He waxes nostalgic for the good old days when the old Commander himself would officiate at the executions and crowds of people would gather to see it. And he complains about the current Commander, who he senses is slowly trying to undermine him with the goal of eventually getting rid of the machine. In fact, the Commander may have invited the Explorer to the colony for the very purpose of asking his opinion on the island’s particular customs regarding executions. In short, if the Explorer were to help the Officer and voice his favourable opinion of the machine during a public meeting with the Commander, he would be doing him a favour.

To do so, it would be necessary is for the Explorer to hide his true opinions, before speaking his unshakeable opinion during the meeting. The Officer essentially grooms him to speak like a politician:

Unless someone asks you directly, you should not express any view whatsoever. But what you do say must be short and vague. People should notice that it has become difficult for you to speak about the subject, that you feel bitter, that, if you were to speak openly, you’d have to burst out cursing on the spot. I’m not asking you to lie, not at all. You should give only brief answers — something like, “Yes, I’ve seen the execution” or “Yes, I’ve heard the full explanation.” […] Naturally, [the Commandant] will completely misunderstand the issue and interpret it in his own way.

(142)

The Officer’s instructions are a precise description of how politicians speak complacently about problematic, unjust policies. Rather than risk alienating voters who may approve of such policies, politicians, even those who wish to reform, often speak meaninglessly on the issue, cloaking their own opinion, and they do so in term such as the Officer has just described. This vague language enables the injustice to persist.

The Officer then ask the Explorer to voice his approval of the machine during the meeting with the Commandant. But in the end, the Explorer says, “No” (145). He says that he will be leaving the penal colony on the boat the next day. In the end, his desire not to get caught up in the colony’s affairs outweighs his desire to take action.

The Officer puts on a smile, but inside, he knows his bid has been ruined. Unexpectedly, he frees the Condemned from the machine. Then he strips naked, breaking his sabre in half and throwing it into a cesspit. Lying down on the Bed of the machine, he kicks the lever to begin the torture, setting the machine upon himself. As it spins into motion, the machine begins to fall apart, with gear wheels falling out of the Inscriber. Needles stab his body, killing him plain and simple. In the end, “his gaze was calm and convinced [and] the tip of a large iron needle had gone through his forehead” (147).

The Officer’s condemnation of himself and freeing the prisoner is striking, and the Condemned is obviously confused by this reversal. I believe the Officer dies because he has seen that the time of his torture machine is at an end. The Officer was simply holding true to his own absolutist idea of justice and applying the same law that he had applied upon the Condemned on himself. Rather than dismantle the model of justice he believes in, he, like Javert in Les Misérables, commits suicide rather than question the worldview by which he has lived.

Next week, I’ll be writing about “The White Wyrack” (1921) by the demonologist and Polish weird fiction author Stefan Grabiński, sometimes known as the Polish Poe. I’m really looking forward to it. I’m wondering if in Gabriński we won’t see a kind of precedent for Andrzej Sapkowski and his Witcher books.

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