Issue 30, Summer-Fall 1963
‘But I’m not guilty, said K. It’s a mistake. Besides, how can a man be guilty? We’re all men. True, said the priest: but that’s how the guilty talk.’ —Kafka, The Trial
The village is celebrating I don’t know how many years of destruction. The band goes blaring by below my apartment. Among the crowd of youngsters following it I recognize someone who was tried about three weeks ago; he has a patch over his right eye and his cheek is pocked with barely healed scabs. A bomb went off in his house and he was tried for possession of arms. Many people here palliate their wretched lot by collecting shrapnel and equipment left over from the armies’ long sojourn; apart from their lives, they risk imprisonment if found with shells and mines, which they dig up for the metal. The youth, his lips white on a scorched face, is joking with a friend who walks beside him and goes through the motions of conducting music, and is distinguished from the other youths around him only by his build. But when he sees me behind the window-pane he stops, and the smile dies on his face. Maintaining the hostile stare, he passes his hands over his face and I seem to hear the sound of tearing paper. And yet he had a mild sentence; a very few months’ prison; I exerted myself to get him a mild sentence. Useless. The judgement was an abuse, an injustice, and now he belongs to those who will one day cast lots to decide who is to punish me.
I am sure to die a violent death. I do not know if this is an old thought, or if it came to me as one way of discouraging my wife from having another child; I live in fear and doubt she may be pregnant, and force myself to marshall reasons that might convince her, if she is, to take measures against it.
I had forgotten it was a holiday and have work to get through at the office.
It is a cloudy, windy morning; on the streets, despoiled with upturned stones and flanked by heaps of bricks and rubble, the dusty wind smells of masonry and of new buildings. It makes the streamers flap against the unplastered walls. The streamers are attached to balconies that have no railings and to cords suspended between the unfinished fades. The wind blows away the voices of the men, who seem always on the point of saluting, hand to their peasant’s straw hat, and of the women, bending to prevent their skirts from billowing up; it distorts and carries off the notes of music with the scraps of public notices the children have torn away.
In the piazza is the bandstand, and on the bandstand the speaker, holding his cap; but soon he needs his hands to aid his words, and takes it off, consigning it to someone as a priest to his verger. Then, when all need their hands to applaud, the caps go flying off.
People are waiting for me, leaning against the corridor wall. Some of them rise when they see the brief-case under my arm, others when I enter the room near which they have been told to wait. The case concerns a thirty-five-year-old, olive-skinned woman; she wishes her husband, captured by the Germans during the retreat, to be declared dead. That way she can remarry. She doesn’t know the advocate has told me of her intentions and with a modest air she sits down and lowers her eyes. She folds her hands in her lap and clutches a handkerchief“, passing it over her eyes each time a witness, having told me that Andrea P. really has disappeared, turns to leave. She thinks this affliction helps hasten the proceedings.
One after another and in the same words the woman’s compatriots repeat to me how one day in March the Germans ’stole’ Andrea P. I write down the depositions and then ask them to sign, but most are illiterate, and shake their heads, not in the least ashamed; they are content to evade the responsibility which for them is implicit in putting name and surname on a piece of paper. The last one comes in, and I ask him his name; he doesn’t answer. “He’s dumb,“ the woman says. He is a tall, blond, robust young man, wearing a hip-length cape. “He’s dumb but he was there, and he knows how to make himself understood,“ says the woman vivaciously, in sorrowful admiration. The young man gives a confirming nod, and sending out his hands from under the cape begins to make signs, during which I see the images evoked by his predecessors strangely reproduced in his eyes. Suddenly I interrupt him and tell him it doesn’t matter, he can go; the woman looks after him and forgets to wipe her eyes.
The ceremony in the piazza has come to an end, and wisps of patriotic music reach our ears. We have lost the war in vain if they make use of the usual speeches in commemoration and the usual laurel wreaths. I have come to an end as well, and say so to the nearly-widowed. The nearly-widowed rises and stares a little at the documents, undecided whether to ask me for an explanation, but she fears I sympathise with the missing husband; she adjusts her shawl; her bosom distends her dress, as if her vitality were defying my silence.
As soon as I saw my wife on the street I went up to her convinced she was looking for me to say my suspicions were unfounded; and persuaded she came out for this reason I took pleasure in postponing the announcement, talking rapidly about the trip we would make in the summer, of the ring I want to give her, happy as if the fear of her pregnancy were dispelled. Until she looked at me and I realized I was mistaken.
I wait on the pavement for her to come out of the shop. The widow’s advocate passes by and even though we stand still he keeps me respectfully to his right. He excuses himself loudly for his absence; he could not come down from the official grandstand. I tell him the dossier is ready, whereon he offers me a coffee, seeming with his stentorian voice to be ordering it already from the owner of the nearby cafe. I refuse, and to console me for the sacrifice he confides that the mute is the widow’s fiance; he shakes my hand, is sorry to go, but must find his client, who has not paid him.
The woman is sitting on the first step, against the wall, but the rest of the space between herself and the bannister is occupied by a basket covered with a white cloth; she holds one arm stretched across the basket and the other bent round her knees. I ask her to let me come down; she does not seem to hear, and I ask again. She slowly turns her head until her pointed chin comes to rest on her shoulder, and lifts the lids of her deep blue eyes, the right, directly beneath me, wider open than the left. And still she does not move, as if I were far away and had not time enough to get to where she was. Thus I am able to recognize her, the wife of a prisoner sentenced a short while ago. I ask her please to move the basket. She lifts up the cloth and reveals dried figs, a piece of cheese, a wheel of bread and a packet of tobacco. She plunges in her fingers and overturns the articles to prove she has nothing hidden.
She believes permission to let her to her husband depends on me. She tried to obtain it the instant he came out of the court-room with a police-escort; they told her to wait and there she waited, even though the prison was far away. She comes from a village compared to which this is a city, but it seems to her that everyone in it is plotting against herself or her husband.
I remember an old man in prison-camp who used to wait at the gates every morning for the lorry which collected our rubbish; he would climb on the running-board and ride around hanging on to the doors and the windscreen. He would get down, steeped in refuse, when the lorry checked out at the gates; he jumped off and jumped marvelously and was not old except for his white hair. He would clean off the filth which the bumping about had flung on him and go back to the barracks at walking-pace. For the rest of the day he was a prisoner resigned to his lot.
Every evening I arrive at the station. The lamp-posts are shaped like the lanterns that hang from carts. The pools of light are mingled with shadows, clear at the paving-stones, less clear over grass and coal-dust. I walk alongside the tracks and at the point where they turn and bury themselves in the dark I sit down on a low stone wall. I wait for the train. And there are the lights; it moves straight on, far away from me, then all at once it turns, the wheels screech, jump and settle among the sparks and the driver seems only just to avoid me; the freight-cars repeat the manoeuver, sway and straighten. I listen to the clatter at the couplings, follow the red lights of the final freight-car which the darkness quickly extinguishes. The dogs stop barking; the silence, thrown into the sky by the uproar, descends again on the countryside.
This sensation of danger escaped, of flight and distance, helps me as the brief race on the lorry helped the old man.
It happens to convicts who have been in prison. The advocates in concluding their defence call the judges’ attention to those circumstances which, according to them, ought to be considered in the client’s favour. I look away and stare at the tiles on the floor; I tell myself it doesn’t matter to me; they are people who have made mistakes and justice must be done. And I try to forget the day the old man died. I am the sentry now and the court-room is the tower from which I take my aim.
When we return from the council-chamber to the court I ring the bell. I go on ringing it when the door has been opened and while the two other judges are outside. Then I return to my high chair and the reading begins. They think it is a mania or an infantile caprice; if I persist, they look at me reprovingly, as if protracting the announcement diminished or disturbed the solemnity of the ceremony. It upsets the accused and his advocate who scan our faces for the outcome; the delay has in any case made them nervous. But for me postponing the reading is a protest, a cure to liberate me from complicity, a release from the concensus implied in the judgement. I extend my forefinger at the button and from there create confusion, anxiety, fear and contribute remorse, contempt and disbelief. A fine commingling that leaves me in the anguished exaltation of the gambler, the melancholy drunkard, the catholic sinner, with a vague ambiguous suspicion of hypocrisy.
I ring the bell as I would recite an act of contrition.
Today’s last trial deals with Teresa Caporale. I hear the name distinctly. She is a woman of fifty and looks more; her white hair is drawn back in a large bun hidden by a kerchief with coloured squares; over her shoulders an identical kerchief, crossed round her breast and the ends tucked in the apron which covers the front of her long red dress. She has no defense, there is no advocate here; it is two o’clock. The usher goes out to look for one in the corridor, for according to the law the accused must be defended. An old advocate comes in with bad grace, stopped on his way home to lunch; however, he utters the ritual phrase: “at your service, gentlemen of the court.”
The woman is accused of having offered resistance to a policeman trying to arrest her drunken son; she seized him by the neck and held on until he nearly suffocated. So much we gather from the brief and rapid summary by the president for Counsel for the Defence, who thanks him and begins to read the newspaper.
The woman murmurs, “it’s not true,” before her turn to speak.
The president to the registrar: “Accused confirms the interrogation.”
“It’s not true,” repeats the woman, more loudly. Without taking his eyes off his newspaper the advocate gestures her to be quiet and not disturb the court.
The president to the court officer: “the witnesses.”
The first witness is the policeman.
The president: “say: I swear to tell the truth.”
“I swear to tell the truth,” says the policeman.
The president:did the events occur as already described by you?
The policeman: “yes your honor.”
“You may step down. Next witness.”
In come the second, third and fourth witnesses. They say, “I swear to tell the truth,” and then, “yes your honor.”
“That’s the lot,” calls the court officer.
Two policeman come in to take over from those on court duty since this morning, but they are superfluous, we have finished. In spite of which the old woman repeats again, “It’s not true.”
Counsel for the Prosecution gets up and asks briefly for a verdict of guilty with eight months’ imprisonment. The advocate, with a faint bow: “I accept the mercy of the court.”
We retire to the council-chamber. The president turns to the judge on his right, then leans across to me. “Yes your- honor,” I say. And he, taking up the documents as if reading from them, says rapidly, “Teresa Caporale found guilty and sentenced to four months’ imprisonment.”
It is ten past two. The advocate wakes up and asks the woman if she requires his assistance for the appeal; a different kind of assistance from today’s, he insinuates. And then the old woman, full of trust, repeats again below him the incriminating gesture; she clasps his face between her hands like a mother with her son and implores him to tell the guards not to ruin her boy...
An advocate once asked a client if he would prefer being defended with the major or the minor codes, and showed him two tomes; his choice would influence the fee. And once when in the tumult of his declaration the accused stuck his dirty fingers on the presidential desk to emphasise his speech he was rudely interrupted and told to step three paces back; and lost the thread and did not continue.
The accused in court is so isolated as to be instantly recognized. Once invited to speak, he runs the risk of being taken out if over-exited in his own defence, of seeming repentent if confused, a dissembler if he weeps, of having learned his lesson from his advocate if he talks clearly; or he stands still, stupefied, gaping and staring at the wall behind the Bench, at the crucifix, at the device: “one law for all”, which he may not even know how to read.
For a woman, the hardship is increased by the eyes that inspect the shape of her legs and the proportions of her breasts.
The accused should be made to don the legal gown as well. The usher should help him on with it, hiding rags or doublebreasted suit, silk shirt or pallid flesh. Their hands which are never at rest (they hide them in their pockets until corrected by the president or the police) could in this way shake in the ample sleeves without further signs of guilt being attributed to such movement. An accused if clad like judge and advocate might instil respect in each of these who as it is pay him either no attention or only what is necessary to confirm the opinion they already have of him. They toss the accused across to each other on the assumption all is known about him. Perhaps in the gown, innocent or guilty, he might feel like those who defend him and those who judge him.
Otherwise that symbol serves uniquely to inculcate fear and to empty pockets.
I may have read it somewhere too but have already felt how solitude creates the need to kill. And to condemn is to kill. It may explain my endurance in this profession and my opposition to the new life now being nurtured within my wife. I have always worn a uniform and in uniform have always committed and suffered violence; the uniforms of soldier, prisoner, judge.
It is bad for me to live in C..., a village now being reborn of its own rubble, which it does not clear away.