“In the Penal Colony”

I’m late with this week’s weird fiction being discussed over at LibraryThing.

Review: “In the Penal Colony”, Franz Kafka, trans. Ian Johnston, 1919.

It’s tempting, given that Kafka’s stories, from what I’ve heard (and this is only the second I’ve read), often concern themselves with bureaucracies and that he worked as a bureaucrat in an insurance company, to see this as an allegory for bureaucracy and regime change.

The character names are certainly allegorical: Traveller, Old Commandant, New Commandant, Condemned Man, Soldier, and Officer.  

The story takes place on an island somewhere outside of Europe. No name is given for the country.

The story centers around a planned execution in a bizarre, complicated machine that kills a person over 12 hours by inscribing, with needles and acid, the charge they are being executed for onto their body. I suspect it owes something to Kafka’s days as an insurance claims investigator and being involved in worker safety issues.

The Officer is proud of the machine. He used to get a lot of money for the machine’s upkeep with big crowds attending the executions. But that was in the old days under the Old Commandant. The Old Commandant invented the machine. (There seems to be something, at least as far as the Officer goes, of a cult of personality around the Old Commandant who is describes as a “solider, judge, engineer, chemist, and a draftsmen”.) He explains its workings and maintenance in detail to the Traveller while the condemned man looks on stoically and uncomprehendingly since he doesn’t speak the Officer’s language.

But the New Commandant doesn’t seem to care that much about the machine. I think this is Kafka’s take on a new bureaucrat wanting to overturn his predecessor’s accomplishments though, in this case, that seems merited given the brutality and expense of the bizarre execution machine. The Officer is a bureaucrat invested in the old way of doing things. He helped design a system and maintains the policy manifested in the machine. He is disgusted that the old program is not only not respected but may be cancelled. He also claims that the massive numbers of people on the island secretly agree with him.

He fears what report the Traveller, given authority by the New Commandant to observe, will give to the New Commandant. When he realizes the Traveller doesn’t support the idea of the machine, the Officer has the Condemned Man taken out of the machine and takes his place. The Officer is suicidally committed to his program. The Officer chooses “Be just!” as the message to be inscribed on his body. 

Fittingly, since he’s the last diehard committed to the machine and its only maintainer, it starts to breakdown while executing the Officer though it does finish him off. 

The coda to the story has the Traveler coming across sort of an Arthurian myth how the Old Commandant will rise from the dead and lead his followers on a re-conquest of the penal colony.  This is inscribed, in very small letters, on his tombstone, and the island’s residents seem to find it ridiculous. 

At the last minute, the Soldier and the Condemned Man, who engaged in a black comedy of sympathy and understanding after the latter was strapped into the machine, try to defect with the Traveller. The Traveller beats them off from boarding his boat, and the story ends.

Is it weird? Surrealistic? Only in the sense that social and political rituals can seem weird to the outsider, the motives of the participants incomprehensible. The Officer’s actions certainly seem weird in that sense. 

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