In The Penal Colony by Franz Kafka, 1919
The magic trick:
The way the story in some ways turns the argument against bureaucracy on its head
Look, I hate bureaucracy as much as the next man. And I’m fairly certain Franz Kafka hated bureaucracy more than pretty much anyone anywhere ever. But that being said, I want to take a turn at claiming that “In The Penal Colony” in fact makes an argument for bureaucracy.
Obviously, from a magic-trick standpoint, there are a million things we could say in praise of this story – Kafka’s utterly unique imagination, his ability to make allegory suspenseful, the thoroughly seminal nature of the entire thing. Personally, I actually prefer much of his other work – the stories that twist our perceived reality. “Penal Colony,” set as it is on a foreign island, gives the reader too much distance, thus tempering the full-on Kafka discomfort effect. But anyway, back to my original point…
The officer in this story waxes nostalgic for the totalitarian days of yore, when judgment was judgment and a good murderous apparatus was free to be a good murderous apparatus. Since then, the reader learns, the old Commandant has died and his replacement is not as keen on the apparatus. The officer’s ability to judge is neutered by government interference; his ability to keep the apparatus in working order hampered by bureaucratic delays.
As such, I’d say the move toward a larger, more watered-down government has improved the penal colony. And yes, that means more bureaucracy. It’s an atypical take for Kafka. His pen points harshly here at the ineffectual governed. They sit in the tavern waiting for their opinions to be confirmed, rather than taking action. Be it totalitarianism or government based in bureaucracy, certainly Kafka is no fan of indecision and the constraints, both personal and political, that keep people from action.
All of it is incredibly memorable and thought-provoking; a story that demands repeated reading. And that’s quite a trick on Kafka’s part.
The explorer thought to himself: it’s always a ticklish matter to intervene decisively in other people’s affairs. He was neither a member of the penal colony nor a citizen of the state to which it belonged. Were he to denounce this execution or actually try to stop it, they could say to him: You are a foreigner, mind your own business. He could make no answer to that, unless he were to add that he was amazed at himself in this connection, for he traveled only as an observer, with no intention at all of altering other people’s methods of administering justice. Yet here he found himself strongly tempted. The injustice of the procedure and the inhumanity of the execution were undeniable. No one could suppose that he had any selfish interest in the matter, for the condemned man was a complete stranger, not a fellow countryman or even at all sympathetic to him.