Kafka, or the Secret Society
by Jean Ferry
Around his twentieth year, Joseph K. learned of the existence of a secret society—highly secret. Truth be told, it is unlike any other association of its kind. Some have a very hard time being admitted. Many who wish ardently to do so will never succeed. Others, however, are members without even knowing it. Furthermore, one is never entirely sure of being a member; many people believe themselves a part of this secret society when they aren’t at all. Although initiates, they are even less a part of it than many men who remain unaware of its existence. In fact, they were subjected to the trials of a fake initiation, meant to distract those unworthy of actually being initiated. But the most legitimate members, those who have reached the highest ranks in this society’s hierarchy—not even they ever discover whether their successive initiations are valid or not. It may even happen that a member who attains an actual rank after a series of genuine initiations is then subjected, without warning, to only fake initiations from then on. Whether it is better to be admitted to a low but authentic rank, or to hold an exalted but illusory position, is a subject of endless debate among members. At any rate, as to the solidity of their ranking, none can be sure.
In fact the situation is even more complicated, for certain applicants are admitted to the highest ranks without undergoing any trials, and others without even ever being told. Actually, it is not even necessary to apply; some have received initiations of a very high level without even knowing the secret society exists.
The powers of its higher members are limitless; they bear within them a powerful emanation of the secret society. Even should they manifest no emanation, the mere presence of these members is, for example, enough to turn an ordinary gathering like a concert or a birthday dinner into a meeting of the secret society. It is their duty to prepare secret reports on all the meetings they attend, reports scrutinized by other members of the same rank; thus there is a perpetual exchange of reports among members, which allows the secret society’s supreme authorities to keep the situation well in hand.
No matter how deeply or fully one’s initiation goes, it never goes so far as to reveal the goal of the secret society. Still, there are always traitors, and for some time now there has been no mystery about the fact that this goal is to keep secrets.
Joseph K. was quite terrified to learn this secret society was so powerful, so many-limbed, that he might have shaken the hand of its most powerful member without even knowing it. But as bad luck would have it one morning, after a troubled night’s sleep, he lost his first-class metro ticket. This misfortune was the first link in a chain of confused and contradictory circumstances that put him in contact with the secret society. Later, in order to defend himself, he was forced to take the necessary steps toward being admitted into this fearsome organization. All this happened quite some time ago, and how far he has gotten in these attempts is still unknown.
(translated by Edward Gauvin)
Jean Ferry (1906-1974) was primarily a screenwriter, best known for his collaborations with Clouzot, Buñuel, Louis Malle, and Georges Franju. A satrap of the College of 'Pataphysics, he was known in his time as the greatest specialist in the works of Proust’s neighbor Raymond Roussel. His only book of fantastical tales, The Conductor (Gallimard, 1953; repr. Finitude, 2011), was published in 1953 and recently brought back into print. Andre Breton is said to have taken his wife Lila as the inspiration for his book L'Amour fou, and called "The Society Tiger" "the most sensationally new poetical text I have read in a long time." This story is taken from The Conductor, which is forthcoming next year from Wakefield Press.
The winner of the John Dryden Translation prize, Clarion alum Edward Gauvin has received fellowships and residencies from the NEA, the Fulbright Program, the Centre National du Livre, and the American Literary Translators' Association. His volume of Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud’s selected stories, A Life on Paper (Small Beer, 2010) won the Science Fiction & Fantasy Translation Award. Other publications have appeared in Postscripts, Conjunctions, Pseudopod, and PEN America. The contributing editor for Francophone comics at Words Without Borders, he translates comics for Top Shelf, Archaia, and Self Made Hero. Previous translations of his that have appeared in The Cafe Irreal are “The Pavilion and the Lime Tree” by Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud and “The Wrinkle Maker” by Marcel Béalu.