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What Hongkongers can learn from Kafka’s The Castle

Updated: Nov 5, 2020

A good book can always provide insight, comfort, and a delightful escape. At home practising social distancing, I recently picked up a book long sitting on my bookshelf, flipped through a few pages and ended up re-reading the whole book. It’s The Castle by Franz Kafka.

The Castle tells the painful story of K., who self-claims to be a land surveyor, alone, a stranger, arriving in a village covered in snow and trying to gain access to the Castle that governs every aspect of the villagers’ lives. He spares no effort in gaining recognition from the elusive authority, but ends up unsuccessful, though to him there is little evidence of the Castle having actually done anything for the villagers.

K. is alone and lonely in his search of access to the Castle. But, on the flipside, we see the theme of resistance underlying his journey. The Castle says it did not ask for a land surveyor and that K.’s appearance could be due to administrative errors. From then on, the whole point of accessing the Castle changes from conducting a land survey to K.’s obsession with clarifying the meaning of his own existence. He persists in seeing Klamm, the Castle official. He resists the power of school authorities in dismissing him. To him, entering the Castle and knowing the secrets of it are parts of the process of self-realisation.

K. is us. Our lives resemble that of K.—helpless, lonely and frustrated, constantly struggling to belong somewhere and know who we are. It is a struggle for an identity and a sense of belonging to a community.

In the place where we call home, the saying “Hong Kong People Ruling Hong Kong” is now nothing more than an outdated slogan. A surge of immigration, tightened media control and erosion of the rule of law have all put Hong Kong’s traditional identity under tremendous threat.

For an outsider like K., he would be easily caught between blending in and remaining distinct. Blending in appears to be easy, but the feeling of losing oneself is distressing and desolating. Remaining distinct, on the other hand, requires a leap of faith.

Hong Kong people are not outsiders in their own rights; they are becoming outsiders on their own land. It is the fear of losing their identity that compels them to develop a new kind of identity, one that is more exclusive and combative. Meanwhile a fight for freedom, the months-long protests beginning last year are more of a fight against alienation and a fight for autonomy, with the ultimate goal to maintain the city’s identity, which is deemed by many in Hong Kong as culturally and politically distinct from that of mainland China.

One cannot be mistaken to see the adventure of K. also as a journey in search of justice in the face of unresponsive bureaucracy. He is fooled by not only the authorities, but also the villagers who blindly bow to the former.

What Chris Patten had said before he departed pops into my head: “My anxiety is this: not that this community’s autonomy would be usurped by Peking, but that it could be given away bit by bit by some people in Hong Kong”.

His prophecy comes true. He is true in that although the authorities themselves are elusive and difficult to approach, more often it is the people who succumb to authorities or who have become part of the authorities that pose the greatest challenge to any transformational change. This is why Hongkongers should be particularly mindful of how their influence strategy should play out, and how to appeal to not only international but also domestic audiences.

The Castle is an unfinished book. It breaks off at the twenty-fifth chapter after Kafka died from tuberculosis amid writing. It left readers all wondering what the ending of K would have looked like. Yet, doesn’t the unfinished piece perfectly reflect reality? We are all living an unfinished story.

The Castle does not tell us the solutions to the issues Hong Kong is facing. But it does tell us the way to go through the trial of time in our pursuit of a new identity.

As he feels belittled and exhausted from not being accepted, K. is oblivious to the pain he has caused to other people, like his fiancée and his two assistants, though to him these people are worthless. It happens. People often concentrate on their pain and ignore the suffering of others. K. is too obsessed with his goals that he fails to acknowledge his linkage with the people around him.

The takeaway from this is: be passionate about a cause, but also be compassionate to the people accompanying you to achieve the cause. There is one analogy of driving, which says that drivers do not just look ahead for the destination, but also look around for obstacles and look out for the person in the passenger seat. In achieving anything, it is important to keep in mind this is a collective goal. And when we say collective, it means no one should freeride nor be left behind.

All in all, The Castle is a great book and it offers a different outlook on life. It moves at a slow pace, but as you progress, you gradually realise there are things in life that are unattainable but worth you spending your life to attain. Keeping going is the only way.

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