BWBC 29: The Long Slow Train Ride to the Sausage Factory

Let’s jump right into it.

In the Penal Colony” by Franz Kafka

I’m sure we’ve all read this story, but in case you haven’t and are cribbing from this blog to complete your English assignments (a foolish course of action, if I may say so), I’ll give you the particulars here:

In a penal colony, a traveler is present at an execution. An ingenious machine designed by the colony’s former commandant performs the execution. This commandant is dead now, but the machine’s current operator attends to the machine and the commandant’s memory with a near-religious devotion. Besides the traveler and the operator are a soldier and the convict awaiting execution. The convict doesn’t know his crime, or verdict, but it makes no difference to the operator since all this follows the former commandant’s designs. Much of the first half of the story is the operator describing the machine, its function, and operation in minute, pain-staking detail. (In my head I envision the device as something like a printing press mixed with some farm device that makes hay bails.)

When in top form, the machine’s intended to write the victim’s crime into their body over hours flipping and bandaging them this way and that until the convict’s attain the enlightenment of their guilt, die, and have their inscribed corpses dropped into a pit. But the current commandant is not a fan of the machine, seeking instead to be a reformer, and has allowed the machine to fall into neglect. This has made the operator increasingly annoyed at the current commandant as well as made the operator spend all his energies maintaining this slowly deteriorating machine.  

A quick aside here: there’s a part of the machine that’s a bit of felt fabric used by the condemned to bite down on as the machine goes about its hour long inscription work. This felt is supposed to be replaced each time the machine is used, but the current commandant’s indifference has meant that the felt hasn’t been replaced in a while and has been reused over and over again despite being stained with the blood, vomit, and saliva of those that have been executed. Kafka can really paint a picture.

The operator finishes up his demonstration and then he and the soldier strap the convict down (with detail given to the filthy felt nubbin they need to force into the convict’s mouth). The whole while the traveler has wondered if he should somehow stop this procedure from happening. The fact that the condemned doesn’t even know their crime is particularly upsetting to him. Noticing something of the traveler’s discomfort the operator tries to recruit the traveler to his side against the new commandant, since he assumes the traveler is there as a “spy” for the commandant. The traveler refuses to take a side, but makes no point hiding the fact that the machine and the whole procedure disgusts him. The operator is shocked to hear this and makes a last effort to convince the traveler of the righteousness of the machine. The traveler won’t budge, at which point the operator realizes there’s no point trying to make people understand the beauty of the former commandant’s vision. He orders the convict freed from the machine, then strips himself down and takes the criminal’s place in the machine. Everyone is too shocked or distracted to stop him, but once the machine starts all eyes look to the machine and watch as it carries out its function. But neglect has taken its toll and very quickly the machine starts to breakdown and no longer function in the sublime fashion the operator described. Instead it just makes a complete mess of its inscription as it tears the man apart. In the end it botches the job so much that the corpse gets stuck to the device and the traveler is required to pull the bloody body off the spikes.

Afterwards the traveler prepares to leave, but makes a quick stop to visit the former commandant’s grave which is located at the back of a tea house. An inscription there tells how the commandant will one day return to bring order and glory to the colony. This upsets the traveler even more and he flees the colony as quickly as he can while preventing both the soldier and the convict from escaping with him. The end.

What can I say? That Kafka, right? Upbeat guy.

Now, I do find Kafka to be a bit too morbid and reading him at times feels like being stuck next to an eleven year old going on about the worms crawling out of a dead kitten’s skull, but for all this story’s excruciating absurdity, it’s all excruciatingly absurd in a way that you recognize as an accurate depiction of reality.

And there’s depth here, a vast undercurrent of critical commentary on colonialism, religion, and technological “progress”. The operator treats the original commandant with a devotion that gives the machine and the commandant’s notes on its operation a religious aspect. This is underscored by the convict’s ignorance of why he must be punished. The traveler’s presence, as a perceived agent of civilization, is seen as a powerful tool to validate or destroy the colony’s practices. You can swim around in this story’s depths. And the reversal at the climax, where the operator switches places with the convict, gives us some sense of relief, despite this story still being torture porn.

I mean, at least it’s some top shelf torture porn. 

Next week, stories by people I’ve never heard of!

Stay tuned.

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