Kafka's Favorite Bureaucracy ... and Mine

By Ticktin, Harold | Midstream, January 2001 | Go to article overview

Kafka's Favorite Bureaucracy ... and Mine


Ticktin, Harold, Midstream


The meaning of Franz Kafka's novels has been sought in every detail of his life, his relation to his father, his two fiancees, his tripartite Czech, German, Jewish self, his friends, and even his encounter with a traveling Yiddish theater group in Prague. Yet in the case of at least one of his novels, The Castle, his inspiration is perfectly obvious. That source is his professional life as a lawyer, 14 years of service, his entire career, as a claims examiner for the Workman's Compensation Institute in Prague. Interestingly, the funding for that program came from a Trieste insurance company (Prague and Trieste were both Austrian cities prior to World War I), Il Assicurazione Generali, which is still alive and well in Italy.

The Castle is probably the leading example anywhere of a bureaucracy transferred from life to print. Anyone who has seen the building where Kafka labored for 14 years adjudging claims by injured workers, will recognize the similarity of that edifice with the one approached by the land surveyor K, who is trying to contact various departments within its bleak stonescape but who never manages to do so successfully. Kafka's descriptions of the departments in The Castle are so like the kinds of departments he must have encountered as a government official, one wonders why the point has been scanted for so long.

The land surveyor is constantly running into problems about "papers" or "files" artifact, surely familiar to Kafka's work. In response to the confusion about why he has been summoned at all, the "mayor" responds:

   "It was only certain auxiliary circumstances that entered and confused the
   matter; I'll prove it to you from the official papers."

Kafka's response is: "The papers will not be found."

Papers not found, files lost, in a manner that could only have been taken from his professional experience. The most obvious example is one that still bedevils our tangled bureaucracies today. The mayor describes the problem of Kafka's papers gone astray:

   {B}ut this reply doesn't appear to have reached the original department --
   I'll call it A -- but by mistake went to another department -- B. So
   department A remained without an answer but unfortunately our full reply
   didn't reach B either; whether it was that the order itself was not
   enclosed by us or whether it got lost on the way -- it was certainly not
   lost in my department [AUTHOR'S NOTE: this is still called covering one's
   rear], that I can vouch for. In any case all that arrived at department B
   was the covering letter.

How many accompanying cover letters must Kafka have seen? Kafka introduces a certain Sordini:

      [A] correspondent famed for his conscientiousness . … 

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