Kafka's The Trial: A Canadian documentary

Heather Mallick

April 9, 2005

I've read Franz Kafka's The Trial twice and still can't warm to it. Josef K is on trial, for what crime he doesn't know and neither do the judges who are equally ignorant of the evidence, but he should stop protesting his innocence as it doesn't look good in court.

It's literary quicksand.

I felt vindicated to hear that Albert Einstein once returned a Kafka novel to Thomas Mann, saying, "Couldn't read it for its perversity. The human mind isn't complicated enough."

I was fine with Metamorphosis. The protagonist turns into a bug. Understood. But The Trial is high concept. Devoid of anything tactile, it suits philosophers but not readers like me. A trial without a court, evidence or indeed a trial? Kafka, a Prague Jew, was a touch paranoid, surely. But even paranoiacs have someone out to get them. As it turned out, he was wise to die in 1924, thus evading the Nazis, who killed his three sisters.

My mystification ended this week, when I joined a group of writers &emdash; Ann-Marie MacDonald, Linda McQuaig, Nino Ricci, Stuart McLean and Naomi Klein, among others &emdash; in a fundraiser for five Muslim men jailed a collective 192 months under our American-style, secret-trial security certificates. Canada is about to deport them to various countries where they will be tortured, probably unto death. We are about to do a "Maher Arar" on these men.

Their names are Mahmoud Jaballah, Mohamed Harkat, Mohammad Mahjoub, Adil Charkaoui and Hassan Almrei. Their cases, which you can study at Homes Not Bombs, based on unspecified charges and suggestions of evidence that is suspected to exist, are opaque. Neither they nor their lawyers are allowed to see the paperwork.

In a performance organized by human-rights activists Matthew Behrens and Laurel Smith, we read excerpts from The Trial, interspersed with music, video reports, news stories and fragments of CSIS interrogations. And to my shame and yours, I finally had the details that made Kafka's novel look like a Canadian documentary.

Even the judges, as they sit in a basement room and hear the secret evidence that purports to uphold security certificates to whip innocent people away from their crying children, complain that they are embarrassed.

Mr. Justice James K. Hugessen of the Federal Court said he felt like "a fig leaf," covering up the unspeakable bits of a system once considered "fair and just."

The stage reading began with Ann-Marie MacDonald reading The Trial's famous first line. "Someone must have been telling lies about Josef K, for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning." What's Kafka on about?

On his graduation day, an Egyptian named Mohammad Mahjoub made a mistake that would haunt him for 20 years. Curious about agricultural study in the United States, he wrote his name and phone number on a slip of paper and gave it to another interested student. Mr. Mahjoub was arrested, tortured and blacklisted. He fled to the kindly Canada of song and story. CSIS got him.

Actress Charmion King read, "In the following five years, Mahjoub will be allowed to touch his children only once. While detained without charge, he has contracted Hepatitis C, been refused medical treatment, and lost a good deal of his eyesight. Daily he cried out from his solitary confinement cell: 'If you have something against me, charge me. Otherwise, let me go home to my family.' "

This is what one federal judge called Canada's Guantanamo Bay. We are about to deport these prisoners to their countries of origin for inevitable torture. The Americans call it "rendition." Satirists call it "outsourcing torture."

And I call it evil. It's a strange adjective for bumbling Liberals or even devious Conservatives who would break the neck of Canadian law to please the Americans, although not a bad one for CSIS, our own CIA. But it suits Canada now. What we do to baby seals we now do to humans.

The Canadian government has stretched its bony claws far and wide to turn Kafka's theoretical wisps about injustice into actual bloodstains. Now there's an image I can reach out and touch.

The fundraiser earned $3,600 for the families of the five men. If I may leave you with something so shameful it makes you dry up and fly away like Kafka's bug, the 18-year-old son of one of the prisoners is ready for university. The family of six is destitute without its breadwinner. Since the young man's religion forbids him to borrow money, student loans are out of the question.

So Mr. Behrens's Esperanza Fund is approaching the Rosenberg Fund for Children for a scholarship. It helps children of political prisoners, in the name of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg who were electrocuted at Sing Sing in 1953 by the U.S. government on charges of spying for the Soviets, charges that are disputed to this day.

It is a national humiliation that Canadians should have to turn to the Rosenberg children, now grown men, to help the kids of our own political prisoners targeted for torture.

Yes, we're building a McCarthy era of our very own.