Kafka’s Harrow

On the creeping terror of the slow reveal in Kafka’s short story “In the Pental Colony”.


Kafka has fallen out of favour in the modern age. 

The German-speaking Bohemian author, Franz Kafka (1883–1924), I mean. 

In contrast, the software, Apache Kafka, is prominently favoured in nine out of the first ten Google results for the search string Kafka.

Perhaps rightly so. After all, software is designed to aid not to befuddle, and to disperse existential angst not to replicate it on paper. Although, it’s a toss-up which of computer-esque or Kafkaesque better describes the alienation of man from mankind.

Since computers are all the rage, I’ll favour the “underdog” Kafka on this blog.

Image of the man?

I expected the search engine to throw up pictures of a human-sized beetle with a rotting apple stuck in its carapace. Even after having read five hundred pages of Vintage Kafka that contains all of his shorter works, I still identify the author with his novella The Metamorphosis. Or rather, with the protagonist, travelling salesman Gregor Samsa, who wakes up one morning to find himself transformed into a monstrous vermin-beetle-creature.

The beetle is nasty; his story is sad.

The revulsion, the absurdity, the helplessness of this ungeheueres Ungeziefer (the German original helps spur the imagination), the ostracism that follows, and the final sinking into irrelevancy—they’re the sequence of events anyone on social media dreads. What happens if one day you wake up “ugly”, “disabled”, “different”, and ultimately incapable of communicating with the rest of society?

So despite his poor performance in search results, Kafka is still germane today.

The Metamorphosis is a cultural phenomenon, grotesque and depressing,  but hardly lethal. And after weeks of discussing writers like Barbey (with his diabolical revenge schemes), Michaux (with his imaginary tortures), and Wittkop (with her Necrophiliac), I needed an appropriately dark note to top the crescendo. 

Enter Kafka’s short story In the Penal Colony (1919).

The finesse with which he dishes out terror page after page outdoes all of the above.

The story begins thus:

‘It’s a remarkable piece of apparatus,’ said the officer to the explorer and surveyed with a certain air of admiration the apparatus which was after all quite familiar to him. 

The mysterious apparatus is meant for protracted executions. That much we learn in the opening. The niggling question is: what’s it look like, this device?

Fiction can add little to history’s already enviable repertoire of torture mechanisms: from Mother Nature’s kindly gifts of disease, malformation, and ageing, to the misfortunes of injury, to the psychological poisons of personal and societal interactions, to the punishments of man by man in the clutches of ingenious rope-wood-metal devices. There are so many options to choose from.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Stephen King’s terror-horror-revulsion sequence as a characterisation of tension-states in fiction: terror is the eerie, background worry of a constant threat, horror is the short span of a terrible realisation, and revulsion is the moment when the dangling entrails of terror-horror’s embodiment are exposed.

The sequence isn’t just a recent staple of the horror genre. Kafka employs it too by divulging bits of information about the apparatus—and his method of doing so can be studied.

Below, I quote (in italics) or paraphrase the key excerptsThe non-indented paragraphs are my running commentary.

(Translated from the German by Will and Edwin Muir.)

It’s almost like a version of the party game charades. Guess the concept if you’re given the following clues:

The machinery should go on working continuously for twelve hours.

Duration. So not the guillotine. 

The apparatus has a crank handle.

Think of all those rotational devices (the rack, the breaking wheel, etc.)

The apparatus consists of three parts. They are nicknamed: the lower one is called the “Bed”, the upper one the “Designer”, and this one here in the middle that moves up and down is called the “Harrow.”

Tanning bed anyone? Iron maiden with movable spikes?

The Bed and the Designer were the same size and looked like two dark wooden chests. […] Between the chests shuttled the Harrow on a ribbon of steel.

The ribbon is a clue. What other (writerly!) mechanical things have ribbons? If you said typewriters, spot on.

The prisoner is punished by having the commandment that he broke written on his body.

Tanning bed crossed with iron maiden typewriter. 

When the man lies down on the Bed and it begins to vibrate, the Harrow is lowered onto his body. It regulates itself automatically so that the needles barely touch his skin; once contact is made the steel ribbon stiffens immediately into a rigid band. And then the performance begins.

The Harrow essentially tattoos the punishment. Most vehemently. (Recall that the English noun harrow means spike-toothed rotational implement for breaking up earth clods.)

The apparatus is made of glass so that onlookers can view the inscriptions.

The onlookers aren’t spared the spectacle.  

Of course the script can’t be a simple one; it’s not supposed to kill a man straight off, but only after an interval of, on an average, twelve hours; the turning point is reckoned to come at the sixth hour.

So it keeps on writing deeper and deeper for the whole twelve hours. That’s the eventually lethal part.

After a few hours warm rice pap is poured into a basin near the man’s head so that he may lap it up if he chooses. Which they all do, apparently.

Because who doesn’t want some warm, comforting nourishment mid-torture? I’m being facetious, but it’s my defence against the unimaginable horror.

At this point Kafka ensures the reader keeps going for other reasons. In particular, a condemned man is standing nearby waiting for this extensive explanation to finish and you naturally don’t want to see him executed. (In other words, interest in the plot takes over).

Only about the sixth hour does the man lose all desire to eat.

Then comes enlightenment, the officer continues to explain to the explorer. Indeed: It begins around the eyes. From there it radiates. A moment that might tempt one to get under the Harrow oneself.

Sinister is this enlightenment borne of such pain. And deeply disturbing the person who desires it. Or do pain, punishment, and enlightenment all have a common root?

In the Penal Colony answers no such straightforward question, though it does make the reader take an in-depth look at the disturbing recesses of the human mind. Harrowing as that experience may be.

Go for a walk along kinder furrowed ground.


This post is part of series on the fantastic grotesque.

Author: A Quiver of Quotes

Jousts with words, jaunts through all genres. In favour of hendiadys, synaesthesia, and the transferred epithet. Books, books, books. Writing. Author of https://quiverquotes.com

2 thoughts on “Kafka’s Harrow”

    1. Oh dear, I know what you mean about forgetting—hope you have no memory of it soon! (I’m still haunted by a few phrases from de Sade and I only glanced at the page. Not comparable to Kafka, but wow are those images difficult to expel.)

      I didn’t find Kafka that problematic in retrospect (although it was quite an experience reading it). He can certainly be longwinded and tedious and therefore not very enjoyable, even in the less harrowing segments…

      Liked by 1 person

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