Friday, February 1, 2013

the castle (excerpts)

(by franz kafka) 

Then he went down to the saloon bar of the inn. Barnabas and the assistants were sitting at a little table. ‘Oh, there you are,’ said K. for no special reason, just because he was glad to see Barnabas, who got to his feet at once. No sooner had K. entered the room than the rustics rose to come closer to him; it had become a habit of theirs to follow him around. ‘What is it you keep wanting from me?’ cried K. They did not take offence, but turned slowly back to their places. One said, by way of explanation as he turned away, but with an inscrutable smile copied by some of the others in the saloon bar: ‘We’re always hearing something new,’ and he licked his lips as if the ‘new’ was something delicious to eat. K. said not a word to smooth things over; it would be good for them to feel a little respect for him, but no sooner was he sitting beside Barnabas than he felt one of the locals breathing down the back of his neck; the man said he had come to fetch the salt-cellar, but K. stamped his foot angrily and he went away without it. It was really easy to irritate K.; you would only have to set the rustics against him, for instance, for the persistent attention of some of them bothered him more than the reserve of others. But the attitude of the former showed reserve too, for if K. had sat down at their table, they would certainly have left it. Only the presence of Barnabas kept him from making a scene. But still he turned to them menacingly, and they had also turned to him. However, when he saw them sitting like that, each in his place, without talking, without any visible connection with each other, the only thing they had in common being that they were all staring at him, it struck him that it might not be malice at all that made them pester him, perhaps they really did want something from him but simply could not say it, or then again it could be just childishness. This seemed to be a great place for childishness. Wasn’t the landlord himself child-like as he held a glass of beer in both hands, taking it to one of the guests? He stood still, looked at K., and failed to hear something that the landlady had called out to him from the kitchen hatch.

Feeling calmer, K. turned to Barnabas; he would have liked to get the assistants out of the way, but could find no pretext for ridding himself of them, and in any case they were staring in silence at their beer. ‘I’ve read the letter,’ said K. ‘Do you know what it says?’ ‘No,’ replied Barnabas. His glance seemed to convey more than his words. Perhaps K. was mistaken in detecting goodwill in him as well as malice in the rustics, but the messenger’s presence still made him feel better. ‘The letter mentions you too. It says you are to carry messages between me and the chief executive, so that’s why I thought you would know what was in it.’ ‘My orders’, said Barnabas, ‘were simply to carry the letter, wait until it had been read, and if you think it necessary take back an answer either oral or written.’ ‘Good’, said K. ‘There’s no need to write; just tell the chief executive—what’s his name, by the way? I couldn’t read the signature.’ ‘Klamm,’* said Barnabas. ‘Then thank Mr Klamm on my behalf for my acceptance and his particular kindness, which I know how to value as I ought, not having proved my merits here yet. I will act entirely in accordance with his plans, and I have no particular requirements today.’ Barnabas, who had been listening attentively, asked if he could run through that message out loud. K. said yes, Barnabas recited everything word for word. Then he rose to leave. 

All this while K. had been scrutinizing his face, and now he did so for the last time. Although Barnabas was about the same height as K., he seemed to be looking down at him from above, but almost humbly, although it was impossible to imagine him causing awkwardness to anyone. To be sure, he was only a messenger and did not know the contents of the letter he had delivered, but his eyes, his smile, his carriage seemed to be a message in themselves, even if he didn’t know it. And K. offered his hand, which clearly surprised Barnabas, who had intended only to bow. 

As soon as he had gone—before opening the door he had leaned against it for a moment and looked around the room, with a glance that was not meant for any particular person—as soon as he was gone, K. told the assistants: ‘I’m going to fetch my drawings from my room, and then we’ll discuss our first job of work.’ They moved to accompany him. ‘No, stay here,’ said K. They still wanted to go with him, and K. had to repeat his order more sternly. Barnabas was no longer out in the front hall, but he had only just left, for K. did not see him outside the house, where new snow was falling. ‘Barnabas?’ he called. No answer. Could he still be inside the inn? There seemed to be no other possibility. All the same, K. shouted his name at the top of his voice, and it echoed through the night. At last a faint answer came back from the distance—Barnabas was so far away already. K. called him back, at the same time going towards him. They met where they were out of sight of the inn.

‘Barnabas,’ said K., unable to keep a quiver out of his voice, ‘there’s something else I wanted to say to you. I’ll just point out that it’s a poor arrangement if I have to rely on your coming by chance when I need something from the castle. It’s not by chance that I’ve found you now—and what speed you make; I thought you must still be in the house!—but who knows how long I’d have had to wait for your next appearance.’ ‘You can ask the chief executive for me always to come at times of your choice,’ said Barnabas. ‘That wouldn’t do either,’ said K. ‘Perhaps I might go for as long as a year without wanting to send a message, and then there’d be something urgent only quarter of an hour after you’d left.’ ‘Well, in that case,’ said Barnabas, ‘shall I tell the chief executive that there should be some other kind of link between him and you, not involving me?’ ‘No, no,’ said K., ‘definitely not, I just mention the matter in passing. This time, fortunately, I was able to reach you.’ ‘Shall we go back to the inn so that you can give me your new message there?’ said Barnabas. He had already taken another step towards the building. ‘That’s not necessary, Barnabas,’ said K. ‘I’ll walk part of the way with you.’ ‘Why don’t you want to go to the inn?’ asked Barnabas. ‘The people there bother me,’ said K. ‘You saw for yourself how importunate those rustics are.’ ‘We can go to your room,’ said Barnabas. ‘It’s the maids’ room,’ said K., ‘dirty and dismal; I wanted to walk a little way with you so as not to have to stay there. Let’s link arms,’ added K. to overcome his hesitation, ‘and then you’ll walk more securely.’ And K. took his arm. It was quite dark, K. could not see his face, his figure was indistinct, and he had already tried to touch his arm a little while before. 

Barnabas did as he wished, and they moved away from the inn. Hard as he tried, K. found it difficult to keep up with Barnabas, he was impeding the other man’s freedom of movement, and in ordinary circumstances this little detail would surely lead to failure, especially in the side-streets like the one where K. had sunk in the snow that morning, and where he was only able to get along now with the support of Barnabas. But he fended off such anxieties, and it cheered him that Barnabas said nothing; if they went along in silence, perhaps Barnabas too felt that just walking might be the point of their keeping company.

And they were indeed walking on, but K. didn’t know where they were going; he could make out nothing, and did not even know whether they had passed the church yet. The difficulty he had in simply walking meant that he could not command his thoughts. Instead of remaining fixed on his goal, they became confused. Images of his home kept coming back to him, and memories of it filled his mind. There was a church in the main square there too, partly surrounded by an old graveyard, which in turn was surrounded by a high wall. Only a few boys had ever climbed that wall, and K. had so far failed to do so. It was not curiosity that made them want to climb it; the graveyard had no secrets from them, and they had often gone into it through the little wrought-iron gate; it was just that they wanted to conquer that smooth, high wall. Then one morning—the quiet, empty square was flooded with light; when had K. ever seen it like that before or since?—he succeeded surprisingly easily. He climbed the wall at the first attempt, at a place where he had often failed to get any further before, with a small flag clenched between his teeth. Little stones crumbled and rolled away below him as he reached the top. He rammed the flag into the wall, it flapped in the wind, he looked down and all around him, glancing back over his shoulder at the crosses sunk in the ground. Here and now he was greater than anyone. Then, by chance, the schoolteacher came by and, with an angry look, made K. get down from the wall. As he jumped he hurt his knee, and it was only with some difficulty that he got home, but still he had been on top of the wall, and the sense of victory seemed to him, at the time, something to cling to all his life. It had not been entirely a foolish idea, for now, on this snowy night many years later, it came to his aid as he walked on, holding Barnabas’s arm.

He held that arm more firmly; Barnabas was almost pulling him along, and they preserved an unbroken silence. All K. knew about the way they were going was that, judging by the state of the road surface, they had turned into another side-alley. He resolved not to be deterred from going on by any difficulty on the road, or indeed by anxiety about finding his own way back; his strength would surely hold out. And could this walk go on for ever? By day the castle had seemed an easy place to reach, and a messenger from it was sure to know the shortest way. 

Then Barnabas stopped. Where were they? Didn’t their path go any further? Was Barnabas going to say goodbye to him now? He would not succeed. K. held Barnabas by the arm so tightly that it almost hurt his own fingers. Or could the incredible have happened, and they were already in the castle or at its gates? But so far as K. was aware they had not gone up any hill. Or had Barnabas led him along a way that climbed only imperceptibly? ‘Where are we?’ K. asked quietly, more to himself than his companion. ‘Home,’ said Barnabas just as quietly. ‘Home?’ ‘Take care now, sir, mind you don’t slip. This path goes downhill.’ Downhill? ‘It’s only a few steps,’ Barnabas added, and he was already knocking at a door. 

A girl opened it. They were standing in the doorway of a large room, which was almost dark, for only one tiny oil-lamp hung over a table to the left at the back of the room. ‘Who’s this with you, Barnabas?’ asked the girl. ‘The land surveyor,’ he said. ‘The land surveyor?’ repeated the girl in a louder voice, looking at the table. Two old people sitting there rose to their feet, a man and a woman, and so did another girl. They greeted K. Barnabas introduced them all to him: they were his parents and his sisters Olga and Amalia. K. hardly looked at them. They took his wet coat from him to dry it by the stove, and K. let them do as they liked.

So they weren’t home, or rather only Barnabas was. But why were they here? K. took Barnabas aside and asked: ‘Why did you come here to your home? Or do you live in the castle precincts?’ ‘In the castle precincts?’ repeated Barnabas, as if he didn’t understand K. ‘Barnabas,’ said K., ‘you were leaving the inn to go up to the castle.’ ‘Oh no, sir,’ said Barnabas, ‘I was going home, I don’t go up to the castle until morning. I never sleep there.’ ‘I see,’ said K. ‘You weren’t going to the castle, only here.’ He felt that his smile was wearier and he himself more insignificant. ‘Why didn’t you tell me so?’ ‘You didn’t ask, sir,’ said Barnabas. ‘You only wanted to give me another message, but not in the saloon bar at the inn or in your room there, so I thought you could give me the message here, at your leisure, at home with my parents—they’ll all go away at once if you say so—and if you like it better here with us you could spend the night. Did I do wrong?’ K. could not reply. So it had been a misunderstanding, a stupid, ordinary misunderstanding, and K. had swallowed it hook, line, and sinker...

(trans. by anthea bell)