Franz Kafka, we hardly knew ye

The past few weeks have been decidedly strange here in S’lano County. One might even say Kafkaesque…

Which is probably a significant part of the whole problem, at least in my little corner of the county.

Perhaps I should explain.

(Sure, why not?)

Trouble started last month when I reported on a court case in which a Texas man had become hopelessly mired in our judicial system and spent six weeks in jail on a bench warrant that had been issued 14 years ago and remained in force for no readily apparent reason.

The gentleman eventually was released after the court determined that there was no rational reason to continue holding him.

Unfortunately, the man had been extradited from Texas and he had no way to get back home. His cash had been “misplaced” in transit and there are no provisions for round-trip extraditions.

To add injury to insult, the man found out that he’d lost his job when he got back home.

I foolishly described the whole situation as “Kafkaesque.”

Silly me. The story brought a flurry of phone calls and e-mails from readers demanding to know just what the hell was going on. And they weren’t asking about the man who’d been unceremoniously bounced around the legal system like a BB in a box car.

No, they were upset about “Kafkaesque.”


Some readers complained that they spent the better part of the morning trying to find the word in their dictionaries. A couple accused me of making the word up and one reader was curious about what kind of esoteric substances I might have run afoul of prior to writing the story.

To set the record straight, I don’t make up words, particularly in hard news stories with one or more Superior Court judges usually looking over my journalistic shoulder.

Admittedly, this column may occasionally play fast and loose with what some might perceive as objective reality, but only to make this a better world for all.

The word “Kafkaesque” comes from the name of the late Austrian-Czech author Franz Kafka, who was known for his complex and sometimes surreal writings. Among other works written during the early 20th century, Kafka penned “Amerika” and “The Metamorphosis,” the latter dealing with the trials and tribulations of a man who finds himself slowly being transformed into a large cockroach.

(Hey, it could happen…)

One of Kafka’s best known works, however, is “The Trial.” Published in 1925 and still in print today, it tells the story of an ordinary man who gets caught up in a bizarre judicial bureaucracy, is charged with a nonspecific violation of the law and is eventually executed without really knowing with what he’s been charged.

A critically acclaimed and popular work for decades, “The Trial” was primarily responsible for the word “Kafkaesque” as applied to bizarre legal proceedings and bureaucratic weirdness in general.

And, yes, the word can be found in most dictionaries, either in the alphabetical listings or in the biographical supplement as an adjective following “Kafka, Franz.”


Originally published AprilĀ 17, 2005