There is a room in a building in Beirut that is scary. The building itself is a nondescript cement block. At the top of one staircase is the office of an eminent notary who wears blue suits and writes notes, pressing on a padded leather jotter. At the top of another staircase is a large open room, with a desk behind a wooden pulpit. I remember a carpet above the desk, hanging on the wall. Even if it is not a carpet in that room, it is indicative of the building, strangely juxtaposed between what is comfortable, luxurious, right and what is stark, punitive, wrong. Such is a Beirut courthouse. A place of justice. Of equity. A place of disquieting balance. None of these is the room that is scary.
Outside the room that is scary I remember a boy of sixteen sitting on his hands. His hands were handcuffed behind his back. A man who said he was his father’s driver was feeding him a hamburger. He was sitting opposite the room and I was scared on his behalf.
In the room there was a short man. He was talking quickly so that his arms moved when he spoke like an octopus. Stacked up around him were mountains of files. Each of those files represented a boy, sitting on his hands, being fed a hamburger by his father’s driver which is to say, to some degree, a life. In short, we should all read Kafka because Kafka presents us with images of reality, distorted logic, human frailty that are so terrifying that they remind us of, in fact they explain to us, the room.
K., the protagonist, meets the Whipper who is desperate to get out of work to meet his girlfriend: ‘“My poor sweetheart is waiting for me at the door of the bank.” He dried his tear-wet face on K.’s jacket. “I can’t wait any longer,” said the Whipper, grasping the rod with both hands and made a cut at Franz, while Willem cowered in a corner and secretly watched without daring to turn his head. Then the shriek rose from Franz’s throat, single and irrevocable, it did not seem to come from a human being but from some tortured instrument, the whole corridor rang with it”.
Kafka tears apart our humanity, the Whipper is impatient, the Whipper is vain, the Whipper is weak, the Whipper is selfish, the Whipper is just doing his job, just thinking of his “poor sweetheart”. We are all of us the Whipper, tortured instruments: when we act for our convenience to another’s cost; when we scuttle forward on the path we have labelled ‘the future’ not thinking to take others with us, to look behind us at what we are afraid of; when we fail to think of the others we whip with our love for them, for each other, or more, for ourselves.
Kafka lampoons bureaucracy with logic and the irrationality of man. Those are the qualities, or the absence of them, that make a room full of paper lives so terrifying. Someone just doing his job, thinking of his family, thinking of his life while another, sitting on his hands which are handcuffed behind his back, waits to know what will become of him.