Franz Kafka / In The Penal Colony

in the penal colony

Written in 1914 and published five years later, In The Penal Colony is another of Franz Kafka’s famous short stories, or novellas, which reads in that Kafkaesque way that is so unique to one of the major writers of 20th century literature.

The story takes place in a penal colony, unsurprisingly; a settlement of prisoners and officers on an island plagued by the crumbling and fading traditions of a past leader, with only one living supporter. Now long gone and forgotten, the only legacy of the previous commandant is a brutal machine, a device of capital punishment, of which he designed, built and enforced during his reign. Most have shunned its barbaric methods but the machine is kept alive by an officer who is devoted and strongly believes in its form of justice, carrying around the indecipherable blueprints for his eyes only like a sacred crutch.

The unnamed explorer is a visitor from Europe, a guest to the island, invited by the officer to witness the execution of an unknowing man condemned to death on the machine. The device etches, carves – over the course of twelve hours – the sentence of the condemned prisoner on his skin: a living, suffering canvas. The officer wishes the explorer to change the mind of the current commandant, of which the machine and its brutal justice has fallen out of favour. If the explorer can only see the epiphany, the mystical enlightenment experienced by the condemned as he dies, with his own eyes, he can advocate the continued use of the machine to the current commandant.

The explorer thought to himself: It’s always a ticklish matter to interfere in someone else’s affairs in some decisive way. He was neither a citizen of the penal colony nor a citizen of the country it belonged to. If he wished to condemn the execution or even prevent it, they could say to him: “You are a foreigner, keep quiet.” He would have no reply to that, but would only be able to add that in this case he didn’t even understand his own motives, since he was travelling purely with the intention of seeing things, and by no means that of altering other people’s legal codes, or the like. But matters here were truly very tempting. The injustice of the proceedings and the inhumanity of the execution couldn’t be denied.

The officer tries to sway the explorer with a long and passionate speech on the justice the machine provides, of the glory days of the old governor. When it becomes clear to the officer that the explorer, who has deliberated over whether he should state his opinion at all, despite internally expressing bemusement at the officer’s fanaticism and horror at the seemingly unjust and violent sentence, will not provide support for the officer (and in turn the regime and device created by the old governor), he acts in one last of desperation to sentence himself; “be just”. The office removes the condemned man from the machine (of which his sentence had already begun to be etched) and configures the dilapidated machine to accept its final orders of ‘be just’ before laying down to accept his fate. However the malfunctioning machine breaks, cogs fall and needles break, and the officer is denied the revelation of those he has put to death, dying quickly and half tossed into the bloody pit below.

the device

The explorer arrives at a teahouse with the now free condemned man and the soldier who had been guarding him. Amongst the tables and chairs lies the grave of the old commandant; above his bones the current inhabitants live on smoking and drinking, unperturbed at the possibility of disrespecting any memories. The gravestone reads “Here lies the old governor. His followers, who may not now reveal their names, dug this grave for him and erected this stone; There exists a prophecy that after a certain number of years the governor will rise again and lead his followers out of this house to reconquer the colony. Believe and wait!” The explorer leaves by boat; the condemned man and the soldier run down the harbour, presumably in an attempt to leave with him, but the explorer picks up a heavy mooring rope and prevents them from coming aboard.

“The Old Man is buried here,” said the soldier; “the priest refused to allow him a place in the cemetery. For a while people were undecided about where to bury him, finally they buried him here. I’m sure the officer didn’t tell you anything about that, because he was naturally more ashamed of that than of anything else. He even tried a few times to dig the Old Man but at night, but he was always chased away.”

How deep can we go in analysing Kafka’s work? How much is allegory, what can we extrapolate, speculate on? What can be taken at face value? Everything of Kafka I have read has enthralled me. A deep unease, an uncertainty of exactly what the hell is going on, and what (if anything…?) Kafka is trying to tell us. I wouldn’t say I read to analyse deeper meaning or to critique, any more than I read out of enjoyment for a good story and the beauty of excellent prose, but I can see why an author like Kafka can create such varied discussion and thematic dispute even now. I understand that In The Penal Colony can be considered in a number of ways; personally its strongest themes are tradition and old customs, how they stand the test of time, and how they are perceived (and altered, forcibly or subtly) by outside agents, i.e. the explorer.

The explorer looked at the harrow with furrowed brow. The information about the judicial procedure had left him unsatisfied. All the same, he had to tell himself that this was, after all, a penal colony, that special regulations were required here, and that a military code had to be followed, even to extreme limits.

We get an early (and upon my second read of the story, a blindingly obvious) hint at the steep tradition the officer adheres to, as he explains the reasoning behind wearing such inappropriate clothing in the heat, purely for tradition.

These uniforms are too heavy for the tropics, surely,” said the explorer, instead of making some inquiry about the apparatus, as the officer had expected. “Of course,” said the officer, washing his oily and greasy hands in a bucket of water that stood ready, “but they mean home to us; we don’t want to forget about home.

The explorer seems eerily nonplussed at the prospect of witnessing the condemned man die, and his often relaxed attitude contrasts the savagery the officer describes. And it is hard not to admire the officer, for while his believes are gruesome and antiquated he is utterly devoted to them and the ideals of the old governor, and his belief that he can still rescue the old ways. I felt religion was being referenced throughout In The Penal Colony, not least because there is an almost God-like aura to the Old Governor, with his one remaining disciple, the Officer, still attempting to instill his teachings and beliefs, despite many thinking them outdated and some even ridiculing them openly.

“Designs by the governor himself?” asked the explorer. “Was he a combination of everything, then? Was he a soldier, judge, engineer, chemist and designer?”
“Yes, indeed,” said the officer, nodding, his gaze fixed and meditative.

The officer’s devout faith to the old ways in which he clings to with religious zeal are clear, and always speaks of the old governor with reverence and nostalgia. Even the message (or warning) on the old governor’s tombstone under the teahouse is something akin to religious commandments on a stone tablet.

With so much of Kafka’s work, everything is up for debate. But In The Penal Colony can be enjoyed, no matter how deep you chose to read into it.

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