Considering the “Status of the Offence”: Franz Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony” and Mario Puzo’s Don Corleone

Art from Pink Floyd's cover for their album, "The Darker Side of the Moon".

Art from Pink Floyd’s cover for their album, “The Darker Side of the Moon”.

In Franz Kafka’s In the Penal Colony (1914), the ill-fated Officer who perishes at the bed of the malfunctioning torture contraption is a flexible metaphor for the uncritical arm through whom the will of power is transmitted. The short story introduces to us four characters, each character a representative of a position of power: hence, we have the Officer, the Explorer, the Prisoner and the Soldier. As a representation of power, the Officer holds the capacity of executioner: the activism of the will of the unseen, all encompassing hand who has deviced the machine which, we are told, enables the Prisoner to experience a “mystical truth” even as he succumbs to the penalty.

The Officer is not only confident of the process of which he is in charge, but is also a propagator of the same. He has faith and utmost belief in the penal system and calls upon the sustaining of it for social betterment. Translated into less abstract terms, the Officer is the bureaucracy and the uncritical masses who are contained within the System of which the bureaucracy is the switch: a collective force that has undying and unwavering faith and trust in the System as being “right” and as being “just”.

The machine is then demonstrated by the Officer, who replaces the Prisoner. However, the unrepaired machine, malfunctioning as it does, leaves a grotesque, undeciphered mark on the Officer (as opposed to the general function, where the machine is expected to leave on the skin of the prisoner the offence he is said to have committed), piercing him to an instantaneous death: the promised, cathartic “mystical experience” proved anomalous.

The bureaucratic set up which implements the “law” of the unseen “hand of god” is a third removal from the source of execution. The actual executer of the system is the Political Class and its proxies who define legislation, set in place the penal mechanism; while, determining the exceptions to the laws and those to whom the exceptions can be applied. The second level of this procedure is the “bar”, where the pre-determined law of the politically select and the affluent is delivered with a guise of officiality. The legal process, in other words, is a facade and a “make belief” surface of objectivity and neutrality before whom everyone is “equal” and “innocent until proven guilty”. The reality is to the contrary and Sri Lanka is a not too uncanny an example for this.

Cartoon on Kafka's Penal contraption

Cartoon on Kafka’s Penal contraption

The Officer, or the actual bureau that administers society/the subjects according to the “will” of power — streamlining and appropriating the throng — is the third level of power dissemination. From the Officer’s viewpoint, he is an executioner of “justice”: the word that is used to infer a form of “fairness”, but, in reality, a mystified and irresistable reproduction of the “will of power”, ensnaring this latter within a “crime-punishment” logic; legitimizing its usage in a functionary role that strongly urges “common good” and “social security. The Officer is an “intermediate”, occupying a queer liminal space: one who is neither a “subject” nor of the “ruler” class. He is one who, to be fair, is lost within the act of execution: one who ardently believes (or has been drilled/conditioned with the belief) that his actions are meaningful in the safeguarding of the community.

The Officer, then, is the Policeman, the Teacher, the Grama Sevaka etc: a “breakdown point” of the downward flow of power and authority — a progression which we accept as coming from an all encompassing, all mighty power-stone “up there”. The Officer, as a metaphor, is simultaneously representative of the mass bodies that fall in line with the sub-agents of power of the above-kind, who collectively create / contribute to “patterns” for the will of the auhor/s to be super-imposed.

In Mario Puzo’s The Godfather (1969), Don Corleone, at an assembly of all leading “underworld” Families has this to say of what is generally claimed and condemned as “underworld” traffick; “unlawful”, “illegal” economic networking and control:

“we are all men who have refused to be fools, who have refused to be puppets dancing on a string pulled by the men on high… As for our deeds, we are not responsible to the .90 calibers, the pezzonovants who take it upon themselves to decide what we shall do with our lives, who declare wars they wish us to fight in to protect what they own. Who is to say we should obey the laws they make for their own interes and to our hurt?” (Puzo, 389-390; references in bold are to the Political Class and the higher chairs of power).

Scne from the movie based on Puzo's "The Godfather": Don Corleone secures the peace with the Five Families, including the Tattaglia Family and Don Barzini.

Scne from the movie based on Puzo’s “The Godfather”: Don Corleone secures the peace with the Five Families, including the Tattaglia Family and Don Barzini.

Corleone’s words identify what we take for granted as “natural” implements of “law” and of “justice” to be the bent and arbitrary will of a preconceived, premeditated agenda deviced by, deviced for and placed as a device of the Political Elite. In the same novel, much earlier, there is an episode where the mortician Ambrosio Bonasera comes to meet the Don. Bonasera’s daughter had been brutally mugged and left with a disfigured and cracked face by two high society “punks”. The court of law reprimands the offenders, but gives them suspended sentences. Bonasera’s plea to the Don is to deliver “justice” to his daughter’s assailants. Weeks later, the two perpetrators are brutally assaulted, left short of death, with faces disfigured and violently dealt with. The “parallel universe” the Don represents, with its own sense of justice and authority, is a meta-narrative of sorts to the ultimate “narrative of society” and the legally and bureaucratically-sanctioned structures that legitimize it.

The ignorance of the subject is a pre-requisit of the System. The general ignorance of the “law”, the “penal code”, the “due process” etc are not only desired, but are also encouraged. The status of the “Prisoner”, in other words, is both absolute and built on the privilege of (a higher) Knowledge or a (greater) Authority the System lays claim to: a transaction in which the “Prisoner” or the “Accused” are already objects and are objectified in a pre-determined process as to how the law should be enacted/executed. Not all are “equal” before or benefits from the “law”. Its “owners” and its watchdogs surely do. The others will have to “work the System” or purchase “justice”, “truth”, “clemency” or whatever it is called: a boon that is to be bidded on; and to be bought.

 

 

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