Kafka Dissects the Great Wall

The Great Wall of China -  Franz Kafka

Okay, maybe I shouldn't be writing too much about this particular short story (if one can call it a story) because it is really only ten pages long, though the funny thing about Kafka is that despite the fact that a piece of writing is, well, short, you can still get an enormous amount out of it (as I discovered when we chatted about Die Verwandlung in a coffee shop today). Anyway, at first glance, one wonders if the story is about this rather large structure in northern Asia:


Great Wall of China



and in a way it is, but in another way it seems that he uses this particular Wonder of the World to explore, once again, the nature of bureaucracy. In fact this seemed to be something that Kafka loved to explore and that is the dark nature of the bureaucratic world (and in many cases Ancient China was incredibly bureaucratic) that dominates his literature.


The first thing that I notice about this text is how he outlines the absurdity of the Great Wall. He points out that it was started at either end and met in the middle, however it was never actually completed because there were a lot of gaps along its entire length This is not actually true because the Great Wall was built in stages over hundreds of years and the wall that we see now is, once again, a wall that was built in stages. I believe (and it is too late for me to do some real research) that the wall that I have shown above was the Ming Dynasty wall. Anyway here is a map (with a legend) to help you understand what I mean about the Great Wall:


Great Wall Map


I guess that map should also point out the absurdity of the wall. As Kafka indicates, in that there are quite a number of gaps in it which meant that it was actually very ineffective in keeping the Mongols out of China. In fact despite the existence of the wall, the Mongols still invaded.


Which leads me (and of course Kafka, who goes on a massive tangent in this piece of writing, as I seem to also do) to the idea of the medieval (or ancient) village: the complete and utter lack of knowledge of the outside world. In one sense the villagers know that there is an emperor, but would have absolutely no idea as to who the emperor was, or even what he looked like, simply because they are so disconnected from the centre of the empire. In fact they may even believe that an emperor who had died a hundred years ago was the current emperor because nobody would have told them otherwise.


So also with the barbarian invader – most villagers would have no idea what the barbarian invader looked like, or whether somebody coming into the village was an invader because, well, nobody had seen a barbarian and thus nobody actually knew what a barbarian looked like and how a barbarian would be any different to say a horde of bandits that came in and raided and pillaged the village. Actually, you would, I suspect, get the same reaction in a small town in the middle of the country here in Australia. These locals may have been to the main city say, a couple of times, but not much because the distance is simply so vast that it is only on a special occasion that you would go there which means that they would simply not encounter anybody from outside their own community. In fact, much of their understanding of the outside world would come to them through the television, and they would see no reason to question it.

Source: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/940737741