The Weird – In The Penal Colony – Franz Kafka


As I continue my reading of The Weird, I approach Kafka’s ‘In The Penal Colony’ with a certain trepidation, I must admit. I studied Kafka, including this story, for my German A-level, an experience I can only describe as deeply traumatic, so poor was the teaching, and have avoided him ever since. (The same could be said of my English A-level texts; sometimes I think it’s a miracle I emerged from my school years with my love of literature and reading basically intact, given the way the teachers worked so hard to destroy it.) In fact, I retain almost no memory of reading ‘In the Penal Colony’, so I come to this story fresh, and indeed it occurs to me that I hated Kafka so much when I studied this story I never even bothered to read it in an English translation. Which is a pity as I think I might have appreciated it rather more than my very imperfect German permitted.

Unlike some of the stories I’ve looked at so far, ‘In The Penal Colony’ makes no effort to establish itself within a naturalistic framework. The setting is vague – a tropical island, a prison colony, with a few extra scraps of description: a ‘small, deep, sandy valley, closed in on all sides by barren slopes’. This last is the setting – and I use the word advisedly – for the events on which the story focuses, the execution of a soldier, the Condemned, to be carried out by the Officer, using a ‘remarkable apparatus’, and witnessed by the Traveller (also known as the Explorer). Again, these are not individuals but roles or functions, labelled for ease of identification. We can not, from the outset, be in any doubt as to who will do what. The Officer will oversee the execution, the Condemned will die, the Traveller (also known as the Explorer) will observe, take notes, report back, because that, of course, is what Explorers do.

Except that the Traveller has ‘little interest in the apparatus’ and is ‘almost visibly indifferent’, and indeed is only present because he ‘had responded to the invitation of the Commandant only out of politeness, when he had been asked to attend the execution of a soldier condemned for disobeying and insulting his superior’ (133). Yet the presence of the Traveller is to be instrumental in bringing about the final crisis of the colony, and the remarkable apparatus. The penal colony, it turns out, is under a new command, and the machine, and the Officer, are tangible representatives of the old command, which the new Commander wants to finally get rid of. The officer’s analysis of the situation is this:

[M]y guess is that with you he is exposing me to the judgment of a respected foreigner. [..] You didn’t know the Old Commandant and his way of thinking . You are biased in your European way of seeing things. Perhaps you are fundamentally opposed to the death penalty in general and to this kind of mechanical style of execution in particular. [..] And if you didn’t consider it right, you wouldn’t keep quiet about it. […] It’s true that you have seen many peculiar things among many peoples and have learned to respect them. Thus, you will probably not speak out against the procedure with your full power, as you would perhaps in your own homeland. But the Commandant doesn’t really need that. A casual word, merely a careless remark, is enough. It doesn’t have to match your convictions at all, so long as it apparently corresponds to his wishes. (141)

Yet, as the Traveller points out, if the Commandant’s ‘views of this produced are as definite as you think they are, then I’m afraid the time has surely come for this procedure to end, without any need for my humble assistance’ (141) And, ‘I can help you as little as I can harm you’ (141). The Traveller’s position is intriguing: everyone understands the nature of his function very well, and are determined to use it for their own ends. A traveller’s role is to, on the one hand, record and preserve the past and the passing, and to lament its passing, something the Officer understands all too well. On the other hand, the New Commandant sees the Traveller a representative of modernity, a voice against the barbarity of custom. The Traveller himself struggles to avoid being a participant in the business to come, but as his experience will show, for all he claims that ‘the purpose of his travelling was merely to observe and not to alter other people’s judicial systems in any way’ (139), his mere presence affects the situation. It is impossible to remain aloof or neutral, no matter how hard one tries.

An execution is a ceremony, a ritualised putting to death, a carefully constructed distancing from death, a way of absolving those who participate in the process of killing from their involvement in the death. They do it not on their own account but on behalf of a greater authority who has deputed the task, and it seems the further one moves from the visceral act of self-defence the more ordered, the more complex, the process becomes, a matter of craft and precision. The hangman prides himself on positioning the noose and the knot just so, to remove the condemned swiftly, efficiently, from the world. The guillotine was the ultimate in efficient killing. And here, the Officer has his ‘remarkable apparatus’ with which to carry out the sentence on the Condemned Man.

And what of the remarkable apparatus itself? The Officer describes it to the Traveller in obsessive detail, almost down to the function of every last cog and wheel, it seems, and one sees that for the Officer the machine is the most important thing in his life. He is the only person left who understands how it works and it is symbolic, even down to the way it is disintegrating, of the administration which he represents, that of the Old Commandant. It and he are relics; of the past. There is undoubtedly a horrid fascination to be derived from his loving description of the machine, which is, with all its brass, all its strange little parts that are impossible to replace, a thing of peculiar beauty, even as it is a killing machine. There is an aesthetic tension between form and function; the Officer is so much in thrall to the one he misses the horror that lies within the beauty.

The apparatus is, inevitably, symbolic of the apparatus of state, at least as it pertains to the penal colony, a thing that has grown unnecessarily complex, that is collapsing under the weight of its own complexity. The seemingly stark simplicity of the punishment, to have one’s sentence inscribed upon one’s body until it kills one, is set against the perversity of the sentencing itself. In this instance, the Condemned Man has been condemned for the absurd crime of failing to wake up every hour to make a salute in front of the captain’s door. The duty itself is impossible to fulfil, the sentence is out of all proportion, and as the Traveller discovers, not only does the Condemned Man not know what his ‘sentence’ is, even though he will supposedly ‘experience’ it, he will ‘experience’ it in a language he doesn’t speak. In fact, as the Traveller’s own experience reveals, the inscribed sentence is illegible even to someone who does speak and read the language. The crime is ridiculous, the punishment is nonsensical, and the method of punishment is out of all proportion to the supposed crime. There is no promised transfiguration, only a slow, exquisite and extraordinarily painful death. One is left to wonder what on earth happened in the history of the penal colony, other than it being left to its own devices (literally), in the hands of a madman and his equally deluded subordinate, to create this monstrous object.

It is a religious artefact in a ceremony which has become emptied of meaning. The Officer carries out the sentence as the Commandant once did, and his whole reason for living is invested in this machine, in the plans and diagrams which he carries with him as though they were sacred relics. For all the Officer’s protestations at the popularity of the executions, one can only wonder whether people were ordered to attend, or whether they attended because there was nothing else to do. It is surely significant that the old Commandant was refused a burial in what we casually assume was a Christian burial ground. When the Explorer is shown his gravestone, it mentions a prophecy that the old Commandant will rise again ‘and lead his followers to a re-conquest of the colony’ (147).

I could go on; there are many layers of oddness in this story, some obvious, others that reveal themselves only as the story unfolds. The more one reads, the more there is to see, and each subsequent reading just makes the story more and more peculiar. For all that one can point to the weirdness of the machine, this is in some respects the least weird thing about the story simply because it is so corporeal by comparison with the assumptions and suppositions of the various characters who aren’t really characters, except that they fight to assume individuality even as the machine and the penal colony stand as emblems for political states whose functions fall short of their ideals (and some day I will attempt a postcolonial reading of this story, because it so richly deserves one).

So, belatedly, I find myself pleased with a story by Kafka, and that is not a thing I ever thought would happen.