This is more difficult to review than Kafka's 'The Metamorphosis' as it is fragmented and incomplete, though, strangely, Kafka gave it an ending. In fact, everything is strange about the book, which is Kafka's intention - it's clear that he wants the reader to feel as disoriented as the 'hero' Josef K, a successful senior bank official who wakes up one morning to find his lodgings invaded by secretive policeman, come to inform him he is being arraigned for trial for some nameless crime.
We never get to a trial as such, only a sort of preliminary hearing. The court and all its officials are housed in a tenement block in a poor part of town, where living quarters and offices of court are merged into one another or linked by mysterious corridors, some of which seem to open up unexpectedly, like a darker version of Lewis Carroll's Wonderland. At K's office, too, bizarre scenes and exchanges take place at the opening of a door. It all contributes to a sense that nothing is quite what it seems, and everything is menace. We can't even be sure of K; all we know about him is by his own reckoning, and although he is, in the early stages of the book, very pleased with himself there are hints of character traits which are very unpleasant, not least his lecherous and vaguely misogynistic attitude to women.
The power of the novel comes from K's growing obsession and sense of foreboding about the trial. We see him gradually disintegrate before us. The more he seeks to know the less he knows. The characters around him seem at once to know everything and nothing. The threat is claustrophobic and, like his supposed crime, nameless. The ending that Kafka gives us is ritualised and solemn - perhaps in the way that executions are universally, whether they be labelled 'legitimate' or 'illegitimate'. The symbolism is political, but the shiver is deeply and unforgettably personal.
Reviewer David Wiliams writes a regular blog Writer in the North.