When did Ken Clarke become a fan of Franz Kafka?
As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. Then, still in his beetle-like form, and when he had been confined to his room by his suddenly unfriendly and unspeaking family for several weeks, he was visited by two insolent “warders”, overweight men in raincoats who said that the court had sent them because he, Gregor Samsa, had “without authority” changed his shape, contrary to the law against unauthorised metamorphoses.
Oh dear, I think I’ll abandon this Kafka pastiche right here … it’s like one of those not-anywhere-near-as-funny-as-it-thinks-it-is late-night Radio 4 comedy programmes. Funny in theory, but .. er, only in theory. (However, see below for a final flourish ... ).
For years I’ve liked Kafka’s work, ever since as a teenager someone recommended The Metamorphosis. It’s one of those unforgettable stories. For me it was a sort of literary “turning point”. What? There’s stuff like this? Amazing. (Another, albeit in a different register, was Primo Levi’s If This Is A Man, a searing account of surviving Auschwitz-Birkenau. Terrifying on a different - but not entirely different - level…).
Kafka is now a byword for impenetrable bureaucracy. That which is “marked by a senseless, disorienting, often menacing complexity”, as Wiktionary puts it. Kafkaesque. It's definitely what you get in his novel The Castle, for example, a horribly suffocating story of a never-ending attempt by a character (a land surveyor called "K.") to gain access to a group of mysterious castle officials who dominate the life of a nearby village.
Recently people have been using the Kafkaesque term to describe the UK government’s current plans for “secret courts”. Figures as different as Dominic Raab MP, the writer of a powerful Financial Times editorial and Amnesty’s Alice Wyss have used the K-word to describe the way the government's Justice and Security bill (currently going through Parliament) would introduce greater secrecy into civil cases involving national security issues.
See here, here and here for coverage of today’s Amnesty report on the implications of the bill, setting it in the context of more than a decade of using secret evidence in the legal system. If passed, the current proposals mean that in civil cases involving people alleging UK involvement in their rendition, secret detention or torture, the people taking these cases are very likely to be told that evidence has to remain secret (placed in so-called “closed material procedures”), which basically means off limits (potentially forever) to them and their lawyers. No access to the truth for them, no disclosure to the general public either. Government deeds and misdeeds under wraps. And meanwhile people who have been imprisoned or made to live under highly-restrictive conditions (tagged, monitored, placed under curfews) for years on the basis of similarly secretive proceedings (see pages 9-10, 12, 17-18 and 21-22 of the Amnesty report for some powerful examples), remain trapped by the same resort to secrecy.
Imagine being detained for years or being required to live under restrictive conditions without being able to effectively challenge the evidence that’s put you in that situation. Deeply unfair, contrary to the principles of open justice, it would perhaps drive a person on the receiving end to despair. Just like a character from the pages of Kafka.
.... meanwhile, Gregor, now transformed once again, this time into the unmistakable figure of Ken Clarke, the UK's minister without portfolio, saw that this was his opportunity, perhaps his only such opportunity, to be seized with strength enough to stop the onset of further secrecy. Too late! Before he could alter the bill he awoke from this feverish dream to find himself back in his bed, still in his repellant insect form. But, thank god! He retained his mobility and access to a personal computer and, using several of his legs in concert, he found that with great effort he could tap out his support for the Amnesty campaign calling for the government's secret justice measures to be dropped. He did so ....
PS: if you want more - and better! - Kafka pastiche, check out Peter Capaldi's excellent short film Franz Kafka's It's A Wonderful Life with Richard E Grant. Uneasy dreams indeed...
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