Can Xue


The Castle’s Will: Reading Kafka’s Castle, VI

Translated from the Chinese by Joachim Kurtz


The Belly’s Triumph Over the Brain—How K Understands the Castle’s Will

     The Castle’s will is expressed only indirectly but it is reflected at any given moment in the village’s atmosphere.  It’s not that the Castle does not clearly reveal its will; on the contrary, its will is ubiquitously manifest.  However, it is mostly beyond the comprehension of the blindfolded K.

     K’s investigation of the Castle’s will begins on the night of his arrival in the village.  When the villagers telephone the Castle to inquire whether or not K has been summoned, the answer is not forthright.  First, the Castle says that it knows nothing of the matter, which leaves K horrified; then it states that, indeed, there may be something to his claim, which kindles K’s hopes and leads him mistakenly to assume that he has already been appointed land surveyor.  Later, K personally telephones the Castle, hoping to obtain permission to enter the Castle.  He picks up the receiver and hears a loud humming that resembles a song sung in the distance; at times, the sound is magically transformed into a single high fortis, and this fortis penetrates K’s body.  This is the Castle’s true answer but K does not understand it; his brain is set against his belly.  Yet, although K does not understand, he instinctively decides not to relinquish his aspirations.  Instead, he adopts a roundabout approach and, by deceiving the Castle, forces it into contact with him; thereupon, he receives what appears to be an unequivocally negative response.  During the two phone calls, the Castle divulges quite a few things: at first it seems that it will not recognize K’s identity and allow him to take up the position of land surveyor with an easy conscience; immediately afterwards, it gives him some hope, which K takes as a quasi-recognition of his identity; finally, it once again refuses K’s admittance to the Castle but, indeed, this is not the same as rejecting his wish to work for it.  These answers are consistent with the magical humming in the receiver.  That beautiful music can never truly reject or confirm anything but it does violently infect K, and thus, in a sudden burst of inspiration, he immediately conjures up another brilliant ruse that eventually brings him into contact with the Castle.  Perhaps because the Castle is pleased with this kind of initiative, it dispatches a messenger with a letter for him, thus further strengthening K’s connection with the Castle.  In essence, the content of this letter is of course also consistent with the two phone calls, however, since its phrasing at first glance seems much more straightforward, it leads K to cherish even greater hopes.  Thus, K’s “misunderstanding” deepens yet one further step.

     After receiving the letter, K carefully deliberates its formulations.  The letter is in fact vague and self-contradictory.  At times, the letter’s author appears to regard K as a free and equal human being, then again, the author seems to belittle him as a paltry slave, leaving K to decipher its meaning.  The letter’s author is obviously reluctant to confirm K’s identity and leaves the labor of determining it to K himself.  The letter is soaked with admiration for K’s courage, yet at the same time there are veiled suggestions that he will be subjected to rigorous restrictions; he has to observe his duties and, judging from these duties, his position could not be more humble.  After analyzing the letter, K realizes the difficulties he is facing and makes the only possible choice.  As an outsider, K somehow manages to adapt to the vague voice of the Castle; in every one of his actions he grasps the core of that will—which is more than odd, really, for how could he possibly consistently accomplish this, especially since he is unaccustomed to this strange form of expression?  The answer to this question is simple:  K’s actions are not directed by his brain but are implemented through his instinctive impulses.  The Castle continuously poses him difficult, if not impossible tasks, but precisely for this reason he is forced to rush about blindly without ever being able to stop.  This kind of instinct happens to correspond with the Castle’s true will.  Klamm’s letter can be understood thus:  There is no hope for you, there is absolutely nothing you can do, but you have to act or else the Castle will abandon you.  K uses his belly to understand Klamm’s letter, and belly and mind are in fact two entirely different matters.  In his belly, K has only this one thing: the impulse to enter the Castle.

     As soon as K begins to act, he discovers that the Castle’s will is in every respect resisting his actions.  At first, he thinks that the messenger with the letter can help him enter the Castle.  Only later does he realize that this is wishful thinking; the authorities do not need to issue commands to choke his actions.  Then he sees even greater hope in Frieda; while living together with her he exhausts all his thoughts to scheme a way into the Castle, only to find in the end that once again all is futile.  Since the Castle’s will is arbitrary, it gives K true freedom and thus spurs him on to let himself “be fooled” over and again.  This is an atmosphere that becomes omnipresent; wherever K goes, the atmosphere always ominously says “no.”  Confronted by this resounding “no,” an average person would soon give up, but K is a very particular type.  At the same time, the manner in which the Castle says “no” is extremely ambiguous; this is no conventional “no,” for simultaneously with saying “no” the Castle is also asking:  “Is it really impossible?  Why don’t you try?  Other than trying to violate the rules, what options do you have?”  Behind the Castle’s appearance of severity there is some inherent connivance.  Its “no” almost equals a “Spare no effort to overcome it!”  Of course, there is a limit to all this: the door to the Castle will remain impenetrable.  But as yet K is far removed from that door.  There is still plenty of time; he can spy on Klamm through a tiny hole in the door and peep for as long as he pleases; he can also vie for Frieda with Klamm in order to haggle with him.  Yet, in his struggles K forgets about this “no” whenever he achieves even the most minute victory; thereupon, someone will remind him.  In fact, all manner of people take turns in spelling out this “no” to him, puncturing his blind joy and confidence so that he will not become hot-headed, for there are real pitfalls in his pursuits.  Now that the Castle has given K such horrifying freedom, how will he exercise it?  Only a fool would be intoxicated with that kind of freedom, and the calculating K is aware of its dangers.  There are no patterns for him to follow.  The present situation is murky and puzzling, and deadly schemes are hidden everywhere.  The nominal powers of the government are naught, but its actual powers are unlimited.  If K is not careful and discrete, or if he is not cautious enough, he will in all likelihood meet with great calamity.  The village chairman further confirms this situation.

     Through his long and tedious introduction to the general affairs of the government offices, the chairman makes K understand that it is absolutely impossible to try and confirm his identity.  This does not mean that K’s appointment is a matter of little importance; on the contrary, it has the most far-reaching implications and almost everybody is concerned; the appointment is under the control of two opposing forces and the relevant documents are kept at the chairman’s home.  K is not discouraged, however, and citing Klamm’s letter as evidence, he claims that the Castle has already tacitly acknowledged his identity.  The chairman points out all kinds of contradictions in K’s understanding and informs him that Klamm’s is just a private letter and that it is of no help whatsoever for the confirmation of his identity.  The chairman urges K to adopt a sincere attitude toward Klamm’s letter, instead of just reading it in a way that serves his own interests.  Finally, the chairman clarifies K’s predicament: he can remain in the village and go wherever he pleases, but he cannot declare his identity and must be careful and discrete.  K nonetheless remains stubborn and persists in pursuing his original goal.  As a result, the chairman grows thoroughly wary of his obstinacy (an attitude that is in all probability feigned). K breaches the restrictions imposed on him by the chairman, and he also ignores the warnings of the experienced landlady.  Disregarding everything, K. enters the Gentlemen’s Inn and decides to wait for Klamm in order to ask him in person for clarification.

     But what awaits him in this snow-paved courtyard?  Anxiety, nervousness, frustration, and disappointment, and of course his freedom. This is what he receives. The freedom he fought to obtain is simply a freedom to wait and this for as long as he wants.  Still, the narrow gate to the Castle remains impenetrable.  Klamm will only appear after he leaves; their meeting is destined to fail.  But how could K not wait?  Is waiting not in fact the goal of his life?  Constantly changing his location, he waits, time and again imbued with hope. He will thus spend his entire life waiting, one period at a time.  The K of this period is much more fortunate than the country folks in The Trial.  His manner of waiting, which is exciting and mystifying, is totally different from the country folks’ lonely, tedious and dull routines, not to mention that there are moments of bliss in K’s waiting, moments that can give people the illusion that they are real winners!  The K of this period is much more experienced and agile; we may even say that he is rather versatile.  Nonetheless, when returning from the courtyard to the inn, he still meets with the landlady’s ridicule and exhortation.  In this, there is yet another hint of the Castle’s will.  The landlady’s words are a perfect embodiment of this will: contradictory and ambiguous, they leave people clueless as to how they should act.  Why does the landlady never fail to seize every moment to lecture K?  It must be in order to urge him never to suspend his struggle.  This is, I am afraid, her sole concern.  Whenever K suffers a crushing defeat, she appears on the scene, apparently helping him to review his lesson, suggesting the directions of his future struggles, and pointing out obstacles he may encounter. She also appears to dispel his illusions.  In the end, however, it is doubtful whether all this is what she actually means.  K believes she is full of wiles and aimless like the wind, but as a matter of fact she is driven by a distant and immeasurable power. And no one has been able to decipher that power’s mystery.  As the person who is most proficient in matters related to the Castle, the landlady performs her duty as the Castle’s mouthpiece whenever she preaches her sermon.

     Perhaps the Castle never fails to offer K some kind of compensation after his resounding failures so that he will not fall into depression.  Thus, after making him wait in vain in the frigid courtyard, it sends Barnabas to bring him another letter in which Klamm commends his work even more highly.  This incident illustrates that the Castle is not at all refusing links with K; it only refuses direct contact with him at the present time; everything must pass through the hands of mediators, and K’s wishes can only be conveyed by middlemen.  The letter also reveals that the Castle is none too distant , but very close. K still reads danger in this letter; to him the Castle appears as a cold and alienating force.  By now, he is experienced in reading such letters.  He writes back, complaining and insisting on the impossible demand—to enter the Castle.  This time around, he also secures the messenger’s promise to communicate his demand to the relevant authorities in the Castle.  At long last, K again kindles new hope.

     Barnabas leaves with the letter and never returns.  K has tried all he can to find a reply to his letter but to no avail.  He amplifies his troubles by starting discrete inquiries about the answer in his present surroundings.  Even Frieda is offended so that he is left completely friendless and wretched.  Just when he is about to abandon all hope, Barnabas resurfaces with some good news: a lower-ranking official from the Castle wants to see K in person. Thereupon the great meeting takes place, a meeting that K experiences half-dreaming and half-awake.  This is the true realization of the Castle’s will, and at the same time it is a spectacular example of the belly defeating the brain and new illusions defeating ancient memories; it is the splendid sight of life defeating death.  K is not granted an interview but breaks in.  At midnight, the whole inn has been transformed into a dream fortress, a dream that encompasses life and death and that is the location where the meeting occurs.  Of course, all this is planned by the Castle.  Within this intermediate zone, all boundaries are blurred, and the waves emerging from the desire to struggle roll forward one by one.  Once the impurities of worldly customs are filtered out, everything becomes totally open and transparent.  But people feel drowsy in this kind of openness.  They cannot think because they no longer need to think.  This conscious dream gives K a chance to confront the Castle directly, thereafter, he makes his way home as the message instructs.  K does not gain a better understanding of the Castle from this adventurous experience; on the contrary, it reveals to him how confused and unpredictable the Castle’s mechanism is.  And the incident also reveals the iron rules beyond human control of which he has been unaware.  The encounter seems to be a demonstration of K’s inner strength.  After all K did see one of the Castle’s officials during the unprecedented nocturnal investigation.  All things are possible now.  Since “nothing” did not scare him away and “being” will not break him, his drama must continue. Filled with petty and pitiful secular aspirations, K encounters the conundrum of the human will; this conundrum can only be resolved through the body.  Profound thoughts are powerless here.  As to K himself, he can never find answers but experience the conundrum on his journey.  This includes his experience with the official Bürgel where life and death converge.  The Castle makes K experience untold hardships to reach this border region; naturally, it will not let him return empty-handed.  All that should happen has happened; the scenery in the dream fortress is exquisite and beautiful—is this not what humans seek in their existence?  The question is whether you dare to burst into this experience, whether you dare to become the first human ever to do so.

     After the end of the historical meeting, K immediately falls from mid-air back to the ground, to the same position as Peppi, a position that is in fact even lower than Frieda’s.  This is where the Castle wants him to be: K will regain his strength in familiar surroundings amongst the people he knows so that he can stage a comeback and continue his pursuit of a strange and illusory goal.

Seeking to Survive on Illusions—How Barnabas Understands the Castle’s Will


     K learns from Olga that the messenger Barnabas lives an inhuman, painful life imposed by the Castle’s unpredictable will.  In a word, the Castle lets him hang in mid-air during all his assignments so that he can neither rise up nor stand firmly on the ground.  Barnabas’s predicament is even more tragic than K’s.  At least K has room to act within the restrictions, while Barnabas’s destiny appears to be one of pure suspension.  But they have one thing in common:  the Castle apparently recognizes both their work.

      The Castle never endows Barnabas with a real identity, yet it makes him deliver letters; it promises to give him a uniform, but never issues one.  Once again, we run into a vicious circle:  a breakthrough is impossible and there are no rational solutions.  Who makes him style himself a messenger?  The forces of circumstance.  But why does he not end this tragic situation?  Because he chose the Castle and the Castle chose him.  Barnabas’s helpless predicament makes K feel very indignant.  He believes Barnabas ought to resist his destiny in the same way he does.  But how could Barnabas behave like K?  The Castle’s demands for the job of messenger are different from those for K’s position.  Barnabas acts as a messenger between the Castle and K, and the Castle demands that he sacrifice everything.  All he can do is spend his days doubting himself in fear and trepidation; whenever he achieves a small success, he immediately falls into the pain of even greater doubt.  No other pursuits are allowed in his life; his job is to travel from the Castle’s office to his home and back again.  Of course, he can fantasize; in this respect, his stamina is equal to K’s.  With unbending determination he wants to get to the bottom of things.  In order to figure out who Klamm is, Barnabas submits himself to an almost unimaginable ordeal; he uses one hypothesis to confirm another, as though he had gone crazy!  In order to wait for an old letter that is bound to disappoint him, he must be vigilant and tighten his nerves.  In the end, he totally exhausts himself.

     Barnabas’s spirit is untarnished and transparent.  He lives for his job as messenger, as the shrewd Olga quickly realizes.  In his messenger’s life, the content of the letters hardly ever has any significance for him; all he is concerned about is the purity of the form in which the Castle deals with him because this is what establishes his identity.  Regrettably, however, the Castle never gives him any hope in this regard, nothing that would make him feel slightly more relaxed or more self-confident on his next tour to the Castle.  The Castle’s officials always treat him with the same indifference and impatience, as if saying:  messengers are not essential.  Of course, this hurts his self-respect.  Still, he does not resign himself and continues to pursue his tasks.  Without exception, however, the results of his work lead him to despair and self-loathing.  The Castle is stingy; all it ever gives him are troubles and pains.  Yet, from his reasoning, Olga sees it differently.  Surely, Barnabas received everything he was entitled to get.  Is he not the only messenger in the entire village?  Is it not from his hands that K is presented with Klamm’s letter?  And is it not because he delivers letters that his dependents have any hope at all?  People should not pursue inordinate ambitions but simply do their work conscientiously.  Yet, Barnabas’s wish to confirm his identity as a messenger is exactly one such inordinate ambition.  Olga’s analysis is an analysis of the Castle’s will.  But does the Castle really prohibit inordinate ambitions?  Why is it then that Barnabas enters into the vicious circle of inordinate ambitions as soon as he starts working?  The Castle simply wants to torment him; according to the Castle’s design, the work of a messenger is per se a job encouraging fantasies.  The job entails far too close contact with the Castle.  How could the dignified and mystical atmosphere in the office and the strange and unbelievable mode of communication not make him feel inadequate and, in turn, make him seek spiritual support from his identity?  And where could this identity be verified if not through his communication with officials and the important letters entrusted to him?  The sole privilege the Castle grants him is a privilege to fantasize.  Yet, this feeling of unreality is what torments him most; and the only weapon he has to defeat this feeling is to redouble his illusions.  But what incredible power human illusions have!  Not only do they support Barnabas’s spirit, thus saving him from despair; they also support his family.  Only because he enjoys this privilege has Barnabas not turned into a shadow, and because of this, he lives a busy and determined life.


Seeking Survival in a Hopeless Situation—How Olga and her Family Understand the Castle’s Will


     The predicament of Olga’s family evolves from a long process.  In this process, the Castle forces this resilient family to exhibit the depth of human distress and man’s ability to survive deep sufferings.  Following Olga’s narration of the events, we can sense that the Castle is relentlessly closing in on them.  While the Castle appears indifferent, it is actually fanatic and even sadistic in pursuing this family.  What is it that the Castle wants to do to Olga’s family?  It wants them to die, but not a real death; rather it wants them to live in an atmosphere of death and to produce their own light in this absolute darkness.

     The first to die is Amalia. After Sordini forces her to respond to his love expressed in his letter, the courageous and sensitive girl chooses a path much more difficult than the one chosen by Frieda and others—she loves by rejecting love.  This kind of love entails perpetual silence and is almost tantamount to nothing.  Why does she make this choice?  Because she has high aspirations and a strong will.  The consequences are not only the death of her worldly emotions; she also brings enormous calamities upon her entire family.  The Castle begins the depravation of this family or, to put it differently, the family begins its own depravation under the Castle’s intimidations.  The patriarch spends all his family’s property to bribe the Castle, eventually losing even his health.  Thereupon he becomes a free man.  What can a free man do?  A free man can set the goals of his own life.  The old man sets an example by continuously producing light to illuminate their dark little cabin.  Without the previous misfortune, how could they have understood the joy of survival?  Because there is no God, the patriarch himself turns into God.  If we understand the patriarch, we can also see how he could have three such resilient daughters.  This old man knows very well that renouncing the Castle will earn him terrible punishment, and yet he calmly accepts his destiny.  The mode of confession that he adopts is of the darkest kind—he has no one to confess to and no idea what acts he should confess.  This kind of confession is as deep as a bottomless pit.  And yet, it is not enough; he must conscientiously look for an interlocutor and incessantly search for his sins.  He searches and searches until he and the mother collapse on the rocks by the Castle’s main gate, unable to move again.  Olga is another typical example of someone who dies and is resurrected; she is an expert in producing light in the darkness.  In her case, there is always a way out, there is always hope against hope.  Not only does she personally endure distress, in addition, she brings up her younger brother to become a messenger.  Her capabilities are truly astounding, her achievements hard to believe.  It is as if the Castle used its tyrannical will to incite her inherent creativity.  Now we realize what the Castle says to this extraordinary family: you must either die or create, there is no other alternative.  And through the breaches in the Castle’s principles we see boundless hopes for life to thrive. In their quest for survival, humans must muster all their strength and push through these breaches.

     Nowhere is the Castle’s will expressed in a more tyrannical fashion than in the manner with which it is inflicted upon Olga’s family.  Here, we vividly feel the impulse to produce light—a powerful reenactment of the instinct of survival.  Entering this poetic frame of mind, every reader will, guided by the poet, be able to experience this exciting and painful joy as well as the joyous pain of creation.  Eventually, the secret of the mystery unfolds before our eyes:  the Castle’s will originates from the immortal will of humankind itself, a will that can neither be suppressed nor extinguished.  This will transcends reason, combining paradise and hell into one and erecting a transparent palace of myth on massive ruins.  But just as we fix our gaze upon it, it turns again into a profound and eternal mystery.


20 December 1997, in the Garden of Outstanding Talent

Reprinted from Conjunctions




English language translation copyright ©2006 by Green Integer and Joachim Kurtz


Can Xue was born in 1953, in Changsha city, in Hunan province. Her parents were sent to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution, and she graduated only from elementary school. She learned English on her own and has written books on Borges, Shakespeare and Dante. Collections of her stories published in the United States include The Embroidered Shoes (Henry Holt, 1997), Old Floating Cloud (Northwester, 1991), Dialogues in Paradise (Northwestern, 1989), and, forthcoming from New Directions, Blue Light in the Sky and Other Stories.