The first time I read Franz Kafka, I was in my third semester of undergraduate college. I was to write my friend’s term paper, as a favour. Unsure of what to expect, I began flipping through the pages of The Metamorphosis. Now, after having read about a dozen commentaries on Kafka’s work, Gregor Samsa’s tragic fate makes sense to me, academically speaking. Back then, however, I read with a mixture of delight and confusion, uncomprehending of what I was reading, but aware of deeper machinations and mysteries that eluded me then.

I finished writing the paper, but my interest in Kafka lingered.

The following winter break, I purchased a copy of The Castle. Wrapped up in my bed all day for ten days straight, I read, going back and forth as I tried to make sense of the protagonist K’s unsuccessful attempts in trying to gain entrance into the Castle. I remember fervently underlining passages in the text as I went along. It was only much later that I came across Kafka’s famous statement, that of a book being the axe that thaws the frozen seas within us. At that point it became clear to me why the Land Surveyor’s senseless alienation struck a chord within me.

It has now been two years since I first read Kafka. I have graduated from college and am a part of the very workforce I so vociferously critiqued in classrooms. Now, more than ever, his words ring in my ears. I suspect I’m not the only one.

Kafka the humorist

No discussion on Kafka’s literature is complete without understanding the force of humour in his work. A story I’ve heard several times is how when he used to read out his works, people would burst into peals of laughter. Sitting in class, we would all nod as we took copious notes. Sitting in my dorm room, however, when reading short stories like The Hunger Artist or The Country Doctor, I could barely summon a chuckle.

Where asked to see humour, all I saw were grim authoritarian regimes with mind-boggling bureaucracies that dehumanised individuals to numbers that were doomed to run about haplessly in circles. The rest of the class felt no differently. One way or the other, all our term papers boiled down to the same conclusion: Kafka’s work is a debilitating critique of modern bureaucracies, and all of us are K – lost, seeking recognition.

In fact, the only kind of humour I detected in Kafka’s work is of a resigned nature. Think of the hopeless person passing their entire life before the gates of the law, begging the guard to let them pass. Or of the country doctor’s sense of being untethered, battling against a snowstorm, with nobody to call on him, nobody to care. Or even of Samsa himself, whose own family shuns him as he dies slowly of an infection in his room.

The only kind of mirth such writing could elicit from anyone is a cynical snicker when confronted with the cruelty of the world, a tentative smile when the world we know so well began to unravel, an outraged howl of laughter when our deepest fears were realised, a knowing chuckle when we knew all along that that this was how it was going to end – and it did.

It was only in the last couple of months leading up to graduation, and ever since I started my job, that I began to comprehend what’s funny in Kafka’s books. As David Foster Wallace points out, far from being an escape from reality, it forces you to take stock of reality itself, no filters.

Facing our freedom

And then it began to dawn on me that maybe Kafka did not stop short at critiquing nameless, faceless regimes. There was more to what he said. As improbable as it sounds, he had a way out.

Reading Kafka, it’s easy to put our finger on what terrifies us all: alienation. Lack of communication. A Kafkaesque loneliness. K’s disposition is so mortifying for that reason alone. He is shunned by the villagers, since he does not have permission from the Castle to live there. But he is not thrown out either.

He continues living like an outsider among the people, desperately trying to be accepted. Nobody kept him there, but that didn’t amount to throwing him out. He is free, in the most crushing sense of the word.

But can hope ever emerge from such freedom? What I realised over the past few months, a fact that eluded me for a long time, before I even began reading Kafka, was that none of his protagonists gave up. Beyond that seemingly reductive conclusion there lies a greater truth: None of the protagonists, caught in a maelstrom which they barely comprehended in the first place, quit trying to control their lives.

Not Josef K, when he was apprehended for a crime he apparently committed. Not the hunger artist when the circus-goers pushed past his cage, oblivious to the maestro’s craft. Not Samsa, when his father chucked apples at him in the kitchen, trying desperately to kill his metamorphosised son. Both K and I were left aghast by the Castle’s aloofness – only one of us died trying to rectify what was so obviously wrong.

Perhaps the humour lies not in our being resigned to the larger-than-life forces around us. What’s really funny is that despite everything, they were unable to smother the very people these institutions were created to keep down: You. Me. We are still alive. We are still pounding away at the gate of the Law.

Maybe this was what Kafka was trying to say to us all along – that our freedom lies precisely in being able to manifest our will onto the world. And so long as we possess that will, there can never be a regime that can truly condemn us to oblivion.

Keep on living

Sometimes I wonder whether it would have been better never to have encountered Kafka. Despite myself, I am drawn to the old adage of ignorance being bliss. If I didn’t have a name for the feeling – alienation – would I have been better equipped to deal with it, by thinking of life merely as a series of bad days and not as a state of mind?

Having read The Castle for the third time now, I am inclined to believe everyone is much better off having read Kafka, despite the harrowing stories he wove. Ignorance is not an option. The only option is that of acknowledgement, or denial.

Even if I never read him, the feeling that strikes each one of us at one point or the other in our lives would remain. Knowing there is someone like K out there, battling for his life, is, far from being a depressing thought, a source of comfort and reassurance. I know I am not alone. None of us is. And that is worth everything.