K was awakened shortly after dawn. He had not slept well. A machine or what sounded to him like a machine thrummed off and on during the night. He resisted arising, choosing to remain motionless on his pallet, eyes closed to the light through the window sweeping across the room, transversing his face as it passed from one wall to another.
When he opened his eyes, both the light and thrumming ceased.
“Sir,” said a man’s voice. The voice of a younger man. Perhaps in his mid-twenties, as K judged by its thin timbre, a quality that K. had always associated with a meagerness of character or a deviousness that some men in business relied upon, often successfully, to make money beyond their needs, and which they masked with a stridency and rapidity with which they spoke.
K himself was not old. He’d had some experience in business which had given him a distaste for office work. The tedious repetitiveness of the daily chores. The sycophantic unctuousness required of those in menial positions toward their superiors. Superiors without regard for respectful discourse. The poor skills of new hires, oftentimes relatives of the business owners or of clients in order to retain one who might take their business elsewhere when, in reality, if that word has any relevance in the world of commerce, all agencies practiced the same principles, if, again, such a word could be used to describe businessmen for whom money was power and duplicity was to be expected.
K, after leaving the employ of a rather well-known, if not well-respected, accounting firm, being well-educated and well-read in the extant Western canon, reading Greek and Russian as well as his native German, sought to pursue a career in writing literary fiction.
His parents attempted to discourage this pursuit and, as a result, he saw them infrequently. He was not married, never being interested for long in adjusting to the needs and wants of one who made personal demands of him.
He had a circle of men with whom he met weekly to discuss books and with whose opinions he often disagreed. All of whom lived in the same building as K did.
“Kafka?” the young man’s voice, reedy and thin-lipped, sounded to K. like an ill-tuned oboe. K suspected that this was Kopelman’s nephew.
“Sir? I am Kaminsky. I was told I might inquire about joining your group.”
“Kornbluth,” K responded. “Third floor.”
“I was given this number.”
“We are meeting in Kornbluth’s rooms this morning. Three-E. Ask him.”
K opened the window to the fire escape. Milk and eggs. No coffee. One of the others would make the coffee. Perhaps Krumholtz.
“Let us begin,” said K after the coffee had been poured. “Part four. Chapter One. Svidrigaïlov comes to confront Raskolnikov regarding Raskolnikov’s sister whom he wishes to marry. Raskolnikov rebukes him, insinuates that he is a criminal and a monster. What are to make of Dostoyevsky’s motive for their mutual enmity?”
“They are both criminals. Murderers. One more heinous than the other.”
“And what, Kopelman, is Dostoyevsky asking of us, his readers?”
“To make an existential comparison of the two, I suspect.”
“And, if that is the case, to what end?”
“Clearly,” the young Kaminsky offers, “Dostoyevsky is challenging us. Are there moral degrees of evil? Does goodness mitigate the wrong a man commits? What does it matter if a man commits a crime for a higher purpose? Perhaps in the same way Nietzsche challenges us.”
“And, Kaminsky, do either of these men measure up to Nietzsche’s übermensch? A man above ordinary men, one who might commit a crime and fear no punishment. And, I wonder, do you not see yourself as such a Superman?”
“I see myself as nothing of the kind. Why are you baiting me? We have only just met and you have set yourself against me. Could it not be that you, sir, are the übermensch?”
“I am not. I am doing you a favor. You are a well-off businessman, I can see. But you are not an intellectual. I don’t know why Kopelman invited you in.”
“Kafka,” interjects Kopelman, “leave the boy alone. He is thoughtful. He may not be to your liking for some reason, but he deserves to be treated with respect, as any good man.”
“Who are you to accuse me of disrespect? Are any of you my equal?”
“Are we not?” asks Kornbluth.
K gets up to go. He picks up the cup of coffee he had been sipping and heads to the door.
“Leave if you want. We will be rid of you at last. You are a melancholy, sullen man. You come in each week and draw lines around us. Separate yourself. I am inclined to report you for help.
“Just as I thought. Report me for what, to whom?”
“That is my point. You are all ignorant of the world around you. You are content to live in oppression as if it were normal. Do you not question who sets the rules and regulations? Who changes them on a whim, leaving you powerless?
“I am not powerless.”
“To whom, then, Kopelman, would you turn to settle a monetary dispute or a theft or a spurious accusation?”
“Fine. And to whom would your solicitor make your case? A faceless, nameless, functionary in an office with an incomprehensible title in a building with no address? No, Kornbluth, you are a fool to think you can rely on any aspect of the state. It has no concern for you except to collect your taxes and to subjugate you to its will for its own purposes and gain.”
“And you, Kafka, on what do you rely? Your own misery? Will that change anything? Would you not be better using your mind to shed some light in the darkness? We are your friends, if you would let us be.”
K leaves. In his room he sits on the edge of his pallet, his head in his hands. ‘They are all ignorant fodder for the insatiable hunger of the state, holding us under its shoe, picking us limb from limb as one might pull the legs, one by one, off a poor cockroach skittering across the floor. Who needs them?’