Friday, January 26, 2024

From the Depths of SDSU Press: The Comic Trial of Joseph K. (1996)


   WRITER'S NOTE: This post was meant to be finished in the year 2023, but in the fast moving world of academia, a 2023 deadline means January of the following year. So without further ado, onto the review!


    Hello loyal readers (and future loyal readers) of the Aztec Paper! My name is Robert Lang, an MFA Creative Writer at SDSU and proud staffer for SDSU Press! 

    Some of you may not be aware of the absolute state of the SDSU Press offices. 

Yes, it does look like San Diego Comic-Con threw up in here. Because it has.

       Truth be told, dear readers, it's difficult working under these circumstances. To keep myself sane, I've decided to dig around the depths of the Press archives, not unlike Dr. Jones, to try and find hidden gems.

So join me as we take our first trip in a series I'm dubbing "From the Depths of SDSU Press". 

Hidden in the far corners of the office archives I found a title in black that caught my eye, 

I have to note that there is a second ominous stack of the book that's tucked away behind a mountain of cardboard boxes. The sight would be too horrifying to your virgin eyes, dear reader. Be grateful I found the marginally less ominous stack next to a single copy of Cultural Studies in the Digital Age

      The publication I've rescued from the bowels of the Press this week is "The Comic Trial of Joseph K." by Héctor Ortega, edited in English by Manuel Flores.

    Published in 1996, the back of the book promises Ortega's adaptation of Franz Kafka's The Trial, written as a stageplay, along with a series of artists and critics' reflections. D. Emily Hicks, author of Border Writing: The Multidimensional Text promises "Ortega's version of The Trial reveals the mexicandidad of Franz Kafka's works." Considering Kafka is one of THE most European authors I know, that's a claim I needed to verify for myself. Alright, D. Emily Hicks, I'm willing to take a chance with you. Let's get into this book.

    I'm immediately greeted with...

Ok, there's a lot to unpack here.

    Anyone familiar with Kafka's work should be familiar with the type of surreal imagery his works inspire and the book is filled throughout with the drawings of José Luis Cuevas inspired by the Austrian author. The art, and more importantly, the artist set the scene for the cross-cultural nature of this work. 

In a solidly written introduction by Harry Polkinhorn, he discusses the cultural divide between the two authors of focus in this text. Franz Kafka and Héctor Ortega. One a "Polish Jew living in Prague and writing in German (instead of Yiddish)" and the other a Mexican actor, director, and writer living in Mexico City. When you discover that the art comes from the Mexico City-based Luis Cuevas and Ortega insisted on it's inclusion in the book, an image forms of this web of inspiration projecting from from 1914 Prague to 1940s America and France, 1950s Germany, 1970s Israel, and 1980s Mexico. 

You'll have to excuse me this indulgence, I went down a The Trial adaptation rabbit hole and I'm bringing you with me.

The play was originally produced in 1982, the same year a BBC Radio 4 production of Kafka's The Trial was broadcasted. If I had a nickel for every non-German language production of The Trial released in 1982 I'd have two nickels, which isn't a lot but it's weird that it happened twice right?

What does this mean about Kafka and his work that it's so resonant with so many cultures at different points in time? I think the book and the scholars featured within give some thoughts to that. The essays following the script discuss the social and cultural context of adapting Kafka and his humor. The humor is the most relevant aspect of the The Trial in Ortega's adaptation. 

If the title didn't clue you in El cómico proceso de José K, which translates to the English "The Comic Trial of Joseph K.", comedy is at the forefront of the adaptation. The original novel, for those of you who haven't read it, details an unfortunate year in the life of bank clerk Josef K. who is placed under arrest for an unknown crime and is ultimately (Spoilers, but it's almost a 100-year old novel at this point) executed. Now I know what you're thinking, that sounds like an absolutely hilarious romp. 

The comedy of Kafka, which is discussed by several of the scholars in the book most notably Hicks, is very absurdist and deeply satirical. Throughout the original novel, Josef finds himself at the mercy of a justice system that is so institutionally fraught with incompetence and corruption that even as he's being sentenced to execution no one is sure what crime he's being convicted for. The bizarre events that make up the year of Josef's life is given a very unique presentation in Ortega's adaptation.

Ortega doesn't just adapt The Trial beat for beat, but instead tells an abridged meta-version that features an omniscient narrator, characters who exist outside the narrative, an audience surrogate actor who speaks directly to the audience about Kafka, and even Kafka himself. It's a surreal read that I would have loved to seen live. The entire play is as much a celebration of Kafkaesque comedy as it is an adaptation.

It's a bizarrely entertaining two act play, but I was still left with the question of why this story, why Kafka, and why now (now being 1980s Mexico)? Thankfully the book isn't just the text, as the cover so helpfully points out, but also context.   

The political landscape of Mexico of that era was marked by widespread political corruption under then President López Portillo. The systems meant to govern and help the people of Mexico was being perverted to serve people with monied interests and power. A time when there was a civil war brewing between the U.S. backed institutional party and local dissidents. There was little faith in the powers that be in the Mexico Héctor Ortega was living in. 

Is it any wonder then that the absurdist depiction of a institution wrought with inadequacies and incompetence would speak to this disillusioned generation? One of the final lines in the play is a quote of Kafka's spoken by an actor that goes, "[l]iteraure is not much a matter of literary history but a people's matter." To me, that says it all. 

At the end of the year El cómico proceso de José K went into production, Miguel de la Madrid was elected president and ran on a "moral renovation" campaign aiming to balk back at government corruption. I'm not implying the play or Kafka is responsible for this, has been known to have strange effects on the world. 

The book also features stills from the original production which is cool, but only makes wish I could have seen the play myself. It's a blessing and a curse.

Unfortunately, we lost Héctor Ortega Gómez in 2020, but the work featured in this book stands as a testament to a longstanding conversation between storytellers that goes as far back as paintings on the inside of a cave. "The Comic Trial of Joseph K." is definitely worth your time if you're a fan of Kafka, interested in cross-cultural adaptation, or you're just looking to read something a little peculiar.

I want to thank you for joining me for this inaugural look through the annals of SDSU Press history. Join me next time as we jump back into fray and try not to get buried by old film props and Batman lunchboxes. Until then, take care loyal reader!


You can pick yourself up a copy of The Comic Trial of Joseph K. here and contribute in the effort to help clean up these four walls of chaos we call an office.

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