In Czech novelist Franz Kafka’s The Trial, a man is arrested, forced to participate in a nightmarish, labyrinthine legal system administered by bureaucrats, presumed guilty, and executed without ever learning the nature of the charges against him. The novel has been taken up as a realist depiction of the justice system as viewed by an outsider unversed in the law. Since the 1960s, more than 400 judicial opinions have made reference to it. The term “Kafkaesque” has been used to describe proceedings which deprived parties of due process or the presumption of innocence, or as a synonym for decisions which were disingenuous, ironic, arbitrary and capricious, counterintuitive, or a distortion of reality.*
While The Trial is undoubtedly required reading for those embarking on a career in criminal justice, an observer might conclude that it is the only novel judges ever take the time to read.
Here, then, are some other adjectives which the legal community might consider adopting, where Kafkaesque is less than appropriate.
- Beckettesque: no progress is made for the duration of trial proceedings; all parties are degraded by their participation.
- Chandleresque: proceedings marked by hardboiled description, bouts of violence and femmes fatale.
- Daviesesque: litigants are pompous academics, engaged in a feud the genesis of which no one can recall.
- Dostoevskyesque: trier of fact displayed appalling pessimism with regard to the human psyche; nevertheless, realistic.
- Eggersesque: lower court decision beset with self-aware digressions; appellate courts wish they had thought of it first.
- Garcia Marquez-esque: the accused is executed just moments before a woman whose love he devoted his life to winning appears bearing evidence conclusive of his innocence; she later gives birth to a child who bears his name and who grows up to be executed in exactly the same circumstances.
- King-esque: a struggling writer, a quaint Maine town with a dark secret, and a van barreling towards its gruesome destiny figure prominently in the dispute.
- Murakamiesque: like Kafkaesque but much prettier.
- Nabokovesque: proceedings relate to indecent assault of a minor.
- Poe-esque: proceedings relate to vengeance for the murder of a beautiful woman; disclosure indicates indecent assault and/or incest.
- Pynchonesque: inscrutable; of astounding length — potential violation of Charter s. 11(b) right to be tried within a reasonable time. [See also: Foster Wallace-esque, Rushdie-esque.]
- Rothesque: proceedings are simultaneously an indictment of and a sympathetic depiction of twentieth-century American Jewish values; accused is an old man, ailing, estranged from his family and full of regret.
- Zadie Smithesque: the litigants are minority groups in modern England, fighting to preserve their old-world eccentricities in their new locale; a tooth motif pervades proceedings.
- Sterne-esque: proceedings start at the beginning and then move still further backwards.
* Parker B. Potter, Jr., “Ordeal by Trial: Judicial References to the Nightmare World of Franz Kafka”, Pierce Law Review Vol. 3, No. 2, 2004-2005, pp. 195-330.