Kafka, or the Secret Society

by Jean Ferry

Joseph K—, around his twentieth year, learned of the existence of a secret, very secret society. 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. One is, by the way, never entirely sure of being a member; many people believe themselves a part of this secret society when they aren’t at all. Although they have been initiated, they are even less a part of it than many men 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 It is never revealed—not to the most genuine members, not even to those who have reached the highest ranks in this society’s hierarchy—whether their successive initiations are valid or not. It may even happen that a member who has attained, through a series of genuine initiations, an actual rank in the normal fashion, is then subjected without warning only to fake initiations. 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, none can be sure of the stability of their rank.

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 notified. Actually, it is not even necessary to apply; some have received very advanced initiations without even knowing the secret society exists.

The powers of its higher members are limitless; they carry within a powerful emanation of the secret society. For instance, their mere presence suffices, even should they not show themselves, to turn a innocent gathering like a concert or a birthday dinner into a meeting of the secret society. It is their duty to draw up secret reports on all the meetings they attend, reports pored over by other members of the same rank; thus there is a perpetual exchange of reports among members, which allows the secret society’s highest authorities to keep the situation well in hand.

However high or far one’s initiation goes, it never goes so far as to reveal the purpose of the secret society to the initiate. Still, there are always traitors, and for some time now it has been no mystery to anyone that this purpose is maintaining secrecy.

Joseph K— was quite terrified to learn this secret society was so powerful, so many-limbed, that he might easily shake hands with its most powerful member without knowing it. But as bad luck would have it, he lost his first-class metro ticket one morning after a troubled night’s sleep. This misfortune was the first link in a chain of muddled, contradictory circumstances that put him in contact with the secret society. Later, in order to protect himself, he was forced to take the necessary steps toward being admitted into this formidable organization. All this happened quite some time ago, and how far he has gotten in these attempts remains unknown.

(translated by Edward Gauvin)


Though Jean Ferry (1906-1974) made his living as a screenwriter—best known for his collaborations with Clouzot, Buñuel, Louis Malle, and Georges Franju—he was involved in many notable movements of 20th century French literature. He was a satrap of the College of 'Pataphysics, an Oulipo guest of honor, and the greatest specialist of his day in the works of Proust’s eccentric neighbor, Raymond Roussel. Ferry’s only book of prose, The Conductor and Other Tales, was published in 1953 and recently brought back into print. Andre Breton is said to have taken Ferry’s wife Lila as the inspiration for his book L'Amour fou, and called his story "The Society Tiger" "the most sensationally new poetical text I have read in a long time." An English translation of The Conductor (tr. Edward Gauvin) is due to be published in November of 2013 by 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 The New York Times, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Tin House, and PEN America. The contributing editor for Francophone comics at Words Without Borders, he translates comics. His translations of Ferry’s work have also appeared in The Coffin Factory and Weird Fiction Review and are forthcoming in Sentence and Subtropics while his translation of The Conductor is forthcoming from Wakefield Press. 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.