"In the Penal Colony" (1919) by Franz Kafka

(actualisé le ) by Franz Kafka

A visiting European researcher is invited by the military commander of a penal colony to witness the execution of a soldier condemned for insubordination that is to be carried out in a very special manner by a very special machine that has performed the same task very many times in the past – but times are changing and the extraordinary former commander of the camp who invented this amazing machine is no longer there and the values epitomised by the machine and the zealous officer who serves it are on the wane.

That is the setting for one of Kafka’s best stories that manages to combine big themes (ethics and punishment, the death penalty, the fascination it has exercised on the mass public throughout the ages, machines and the their uses and misuses, the military mindset, tradition and modernity …) into a seemingly simple story seemingly simply told that somehow keeps the reader in thrall throughout and long afterwards too.

The central character in the story is the machine, an amazing contraption with robot-like capabilities (the term ”robot” and probably the concept hadn’t been invented yet [1] in 1914 when Kafka wrote this story or in 1919 when it was published) and even a personality of its own.

With Metamorphosis it is the Kafka story that has best passed the test of time: it seems as interesting and strange and original and thought-provoking and powerful - and well-told - today as when it was first published.

This is a new translation done specially for this site.


e-books of this seminal work are available for downloading below.

IN THE PENAL COLONY

„It is a very special machine,” said the officer to the visiting researcher as he looked with an admiring air at the machine that he knew so well. The visitor seemed to have accepted only out of politeness the commander’s invitation to witness the execution of a soldier who had been judged guilty of disobedience and of insulting his superior. The execution had moreover not aroused much interest in the penal colony. In this deep, sandy little valley surrounded by bare slopes there were only, apart from the officer and the visitor, the prisoner – a stolid, broad-mouthed man with bedraggled hair and a dissipated face – and a soldier holding a heavy chain from which smaller chains ran out to shackle the condemned man’s feet and wrists as well as his neck, and which were linked together by other chains. Moreover the condemned man looked so cringing and doglike that it seemed as if he could be left free to wander around, as one would only have to whistle for him to come back when the execution was to begin.

The visitor had little taste for the machine and was going back and forth behind the condemned man almost visibly unconcerned while the officer mas making the final preparations, crawling under the machine that was mounted over a pit and then going up a ladder to inspect its upper part. This was work that really should have been left to a machinist, but the officer carried it out with obvious relish, either because he was a firm partisan of the machine or because for other reasons this work could be trusted to no one else.

"Now everything is ready," he finally cried out and came back down the ladder. He was very tired, breathing with his mouth wide open, and he had two delicate lady’s handkerchiefs stuffed into the collar of his uniform.

"These uniforms are really too heavy for the tropics," the visitor remarked, instead of asking about the machine as the officer had expected.

"Certainly," said the officer, washing oil and grease for his besmudged hands in a water basin standing nearby, "but they represent the homeland: we must never forger the homeland. – Now just look at this machine, " he continued straightaway, drying his hands with a towel and pointing at the same time to the machine, "up to now preparatory work has been necessary, but from here on the machine will function all on its own."

The visitor nodded and followed the officer. The latter was taking precautionary measures against possible malfunctions and said, "Naturally there are sometimes incidents; I certainly hope that there won’t be any today, however one must always take the possibility into account. The machine should function for twelve hours without incident. If however there is a problem it will only be a small one and will be easily fixed."

"Would you like to be seated?" he asked finally, taking a cane chair from a pile and offering it to the visitor, who couldn’t refuse. He now was sitting on the edge of a pit, into which he glanced. It was not very deep. On one side of the pit there was a wall of dug-up earth, on the other side was the machine.

"I don’t know," said the officer, "if the camp commander has explained the working of the machine to you."

The visitor made an uncertain movement of the hand; the officer asked for nothing better than to explain the functioning of the machine himself.

"This machine," he said and took hold of a crankshaft, on which he leaned, "is an invention of our former commander. I participated in all of the preliminary research and was also involved in the construction work right up to its completion. The credit for the invention however belongs to him alone. Have you heard about our former commander? No? Well, I am not exaggerating when I say that the organisation of the whole penal colony was his work. We, his friends, knew at his death that it was so fully developed that his successor, even if he had a thousand new projects in mind, wouldn’t be able to alter anything in the organisation of the camp for many years at least. Our prediction has been shown to be true; the new commander has had to recognize that. It is such a shame that you never knew the former commander! – But", the officer interrupted himself, "I am chatting, and his machine is standing here before us. It consists, as you can see, of three parts. Over time each part has acquired certain well-known names. The lower part is called "the bed", the upper part "the plotter", and the middle, suspended part here, "the harrow."

"The harrow?" questioned the visitor. He had not been listening attentively, the sun was starkly penetrating into the shadowless pit, one could hardly gather one’s thoughts together. All the more so did he admire the officer who, in a close-fitting parade uniform with epaulettes, his tunic laden with braids, was so avidly explaining his affair and at the same time tightening screws here and there with a screwdriver while he was speaking. The soldier seemed to be in a similar state of mind as the visitor. He had wrapped the chains around the condemned man’s wrists, was supporting himself with one hand on his weapon and had lowered his head down on his neck in an attitude of indifference to everything around him. That did not surprise the visitor, as the officer was talking in French and without a doubt neither the soldier nor the condemned man understood a word of it. It was all the more surprising that the condemned man was all the same carefully following the officer’s explanations. With a kind of sleepy perseverance he directed his gaze to wherever the officer was pointing, and now as the latter was interrupted by the question from the visitor he also, just like the officer, turned his gaze upon him.

"Yes, the harrow" said the officer, "the name is appropriate. The needles are arranged in the manner of a harrow, and the whole operation will be carried out like a harrow that efficiently and completely works over a field. You will understand that right away. The condemned man will be laid out here on the bed. I shall first describe the machine and only then start it up. You will be better able to follow that way. Moreover a cogwheel in the plotter has been too worn down: it screeches so much when it is in action that one can hardly hear oneself; spare parts are unfortunately too difficult to procure. And here is the bed, as I have said. It is completely covered over with a layer of wadding, for a reason that you will soon see. The condemned man will be laid on his stomach on this wadding, naked of course; these straps are for the hands, these are for the feet, and these here are used to fasten the neck, to keep it solidly in place. Here at the head of the bed, where the man, as I have said, will be lying face down at first, there is this felt stump that can easily be regulated so that it goes directly into the man’s mouth. Its function is to prevent him from crying out and from biting his tongue. Of course, the man must let the felt into his mouth, otherwise the straps would break his the neck."

"Is that cotton wool?" asked the visitor, leaning forward.

"Yes, certainly," said the officer smiling, "feel it yourself." He took the hand of the visitor and led it over the bed. "It is a specially prepared cotton, which is why it has an unusual appearance; I shall talk more about its purpose later on."

The visitor had already started to be interested in the machine; with his hand over his eyes to protect them from the sun, he looked up at it. It was a big structure. The bed and the plotter had the same dimensions and seemed to be like two large dark chests. The plotter had been set some two meters over the bed; they were attached together in the corners by four brass rods that sparkled in the sun. Between the chests the harrow swung on a ribbon of steel.

The officer had scarcely noticed the earlier indifference of the visitor, but his attention was immediately caught by this newly awaked interest, so he paused in his explanations to give the visitor time to examine the machine without being disturbed. The condemned man imitated the visitor; because he couldn’t protect his eyes with his hands, he looked up at the machine blinking his unprotected eyes.

"And the man lies down like this," said the visitor, leaning back in his chair and crossing his legs.

"Yes," said the officer, pushing his cap back a little and passing his hand over his hot face, "now listen! Both the bed and the plotter have their own electrical battery; the bed uses it for itself, the plotter uses its own for the harrow. As soon as the man is firmly attached, the bed starts moving. It trembles in tiny, very rapid impulses both sideways and up and down. You will have seen similar machines in medical institutions, but all the movements of our bed have been precisely calculated; they have to be precisely adapted to the movements of the harrow. But it is the harrow that in fact carries out the verdict of the tribunal.

"What exactly is the verdict, then?" asked the visitor.

"You don’t know that either?" said the astonished officer, biting his lip: "Excuse me, if my explanation seems somewhat disorganised, I do beg your pardon. Previously it was the duty of the camp commander to give the explanation; the new commander has however declined this honour; that he hasn’t for such an important visit – the visitor tried to wave away the honour with both his hands, but the officer insisted on the expression – for such an important visit at all explained our way of carrying out the sentence is another novelty, that –," he had a curse on the tip of his tongue, but caught himself up and only said: "I did not agree, it is not my fault. It so happens that I am the most qualified person to explain our method of carrying out the sentence, for I have here – he took some papers out of his briefcase – the relevant drawings done by the former commander."

"Drawings done by the commander himself?" asked the visitor: "Was he a master of all trades, able to do everything himself? Was he soldier, judge, builder, chemist, draughtsman?"

"Certainly," said the officer, nodding in agreement, with a fixed, thoughtful look. Then he examined his hands; they didn’t seem to him to be clean enough to touch the drawings; he went over to the washbasin and washed them again. Then he took out a small leather briefcase and said: "Our sentence does not sound very severe. The rule that a man has infringed is to be written on his body by the harrow. For this man, for example," – the officer nodded towards to the condemned man – "will be written on his body: respect your superior!"

The visitor looked fleetingly at the man; he kept his head down after the officer had pointed to him and seemed to be straining to hear what was said, to learn whatever he could. But the movements of his thick lips pressed together showed openly that he couldn’t understand anything. The visitor would have liked to ask a number of questions, but only said after having glanced at the man: "Is he aware of the verdict?"

"No," replied the officer and wanted to continue with his explanations, but the visitor interrupted him: "He doesn’t know his own verdict?"

"No," the officer said again; he broke off for a moment as if he were waiting for the visitor to elaborate on his question, and then said: "It would serve no purpose to inform him of the sentence. He will be informed about it on his body."

The visitor would have liked to say no more, but he felt the eyes of the condemned man on him, who seemed to be asking if he approved the procedure that was being described. So the visitor, who has already leaned back on his chair, bent forward again and asked once more: "But surely he is aware that he has been judged?"

"No, nor that" said the officer and smiled at the visitor, as if he were expecting another bizarre statement from him.

"No," said the visitor and stroked his forehead, "then the man doesn’t know how his defence was carried out?"

"He had no opportunity to defend himself, " said the officer, looking aside as if he were talking to himself and didn’t want to shame the visitor by explaining such obvious things to him.

"He must however have had the opportunity to defend himself," said the visitor and got up from his chair.

The officer realised that there was a risk of interrupting his exposé of the functioning of the machine for quite a while; he went over to the visitor, took his arm, pointed with his hand to the condemned man, who now that they were directly looking at him was standing to attention – the soldier took up the chain, as well – and said: "The affair was conducted in the following manner. I am the judge here in the penal colony, in spite of my youth, because I always assisted the former commandant in his punishment duties, and also I know the machine best. The principle on which I base my judgements is: the guilt is always certain. Other courts may not respect this principle, for they have several members and have other courts over them. That is not the case here, or at least it wasn’t under the former commander. Although the new commander has shown some inclination to interfere in my jurisdiction, I have so far managed to defend myself from him, and shall continue to do so. You wanted an explanation of this case: it is as simple as anything. This morning a captain posted a complaint that this man, who had been assigned to serve him, was sleeping in front of his door; he had slept on duty. He specifically had the obligation to get up on the stroke of the hour and salute the captain in front of his door. Certainly it is not a difficult obligation and it is a necessary one, for he must remain as fresh on watch duty as on other duties. Last night the captain wanted to see if his orderly was performing his duty properly. He opened the door precisely at two o’clock and found him crumpled up sleeping. He took up his whip and struck him in the face. Instead of getting up and asking for pardon, the man wrapped his arms around his superior’s legs, shaking him and shouting: "Throw the whip away or I’ll eat you alive!" Those are the facts of the case. The captain came to me within the hour, I wrote out the details of the case, followed by the verdict. Then I had the man led away in chains. All that was very simple. If I had first summoned the man and interrogated him that would have led to confusion. He would have lied, and then, when I would have shown that they were lies, he would have changed them and replaced them with other lies and so on. Now however I have him and will not let him go. – Is everything clear? But time is passing by, the execution of the sentence must begin, and I have not finished explaining the functioning of the machine."

He indicated to the visitor to sit down again, went over to the machine and began: "As you can see, the harrow corresponds to the shape of the man; this part of the harrow is for the upper body, here are the harrows for the legs. For the head there is just this little stylus. Is everything clear?" He leaned over toward the visitor in a friendly manner, ready to provide the most comprehensive explanations.

The visitor looked with furrowed brow at the harrow. The information about the procedure had not satisfied him. However he said to himself that this was a penal colony, that here special rules were necessary and that here one had to adhere strictly to military procedures. Apart from that he placed some hope in the new commander, who clearly, albeit slowly, was implementing a new set of regulations that the restricted mind of this officer could not accept. Proceeding from this train of thought the visitor asked, "Will the new commander be present for the execution?"

"That is not certain," said the officer, who was painfully affected by the direct question, and whose friendly expression became distorted: "Just because of that we must hurry up. I shall even have to shorten my explanations, much as I regret having to do so. But I could provide further clarifications tomorrow, after the machine has been cleaned up – its only default is that is gets so dirty. Now we only have time for the most necessary explanations. When the man lies down on the bed and it begins to shake, the harrow will sink down over the body. It is so regulated that it only touches the body with the tips of the needles; when that has been done, the steel spring is tightly stretched out like a rod. And now the work begins. A layman can see no external difference between the punishments. The harrow always appears to function in the same manner. With a quivering motion it sticks its points into the body that is quivering with the motion of the bed. For everyone to be able to see just how the verdict is carried out, the machine was made of glass. There were some technical difficulties in connecting the needles, but they were successfully resolved after a number of experiments. We spared no effort. And now everyone can see through the glass how the inscription is engraved into the body. Would you like to come closer to look at the needles?"

The visitor slowly got up, went over and leaned over the harrow.

"You see", said the officer "two types of needles in diverse arrangements. Each long one has a short one beside it. The long one does the writing, and the short one spurts water out to wash the blood away so as to always keep the writing clear. The bloodied water is led into this groove and finally flows into this main channel, whose drainpipe goes into the pit." The officer showed with his finger the path that the bloodied water had to take. As he ceremoniously took hold of the drainpipe with both hands to make everything as clear as possible, the visitor slowly lifted his head and, feeling in back of him with his hand, started to go back to his chair. Then he saw to his horror that the condemned man had also responded to the officer’s invitation and been examining the workings of the machine. He had dragged the sleepy soldier a bit forward and had also been leaning over the glass. It was visible from his uncertain look that he was trying to see what the two men had been looking at, but unsuccessfully as he lacked the explanation. He leaned over here and there. He constantly ran his eyes back over the glass. The visitor wanted to push him back in place, for what he was doing was probably forbidden. But the officer held the visitor firmly with one hand, took a handful of earth from the wall with the other and threw it at the soldier, who raised his eyes with a startle, saw what the condemned man had dared to do, let his weapon fall, stuck his heels into the ground and jerked the condemned man backwards so that he fell down, and then looked down at him as he was turning over with his chains clinking. "Pull him up!" cried the officer, as he could see that the visitor was all too distracted by the condemned man. The visitor even leaned away from the harrow without bothering about it and only wanted to see what was being done to the man. "Handle him carefully!" cried the officer again. He came around the machine, took him under the armpits himself and pulled the man, who was constantly slipping on his feet, upright with the help of the soldier.

"Now I know everything," said the visitor as the officer turned back to him.

"Except for the essential," said the officer, who took him under the arm and pointed upwards: "There in the plotter are the gearings that control the movements of the harrow, and these gears are set according to the drawings that are established to conform to the sentence. I still use the drawings of the former commander. Here they are," – he took some sheets out of the briefcase – "Unfortunately I can’t put them in your hands, they are the most precious things that I have. Sit down, I shall show them to you from a distance and then you will be able to clearly understand everything."

He showed him the first sheet. The visitor would have liked to say something appreciative, but only saw a labyrinth-like series of crossing lines that so completely covered the page that the white background between the lines could only be seen with difficulty.

"Read it," said the officer.

"I can’t," said the visitor.

"It is however clear," said the officer.

"It is very artfully done," said the visitor evasively, "but I cannot decipher it."

"Yes," said the officer laughing, and put the briefcase away again, "it is not a script for schoolchildren. It has to be studied for a long time. You too would certainly eventually recognize that. It couldn’t of course be written in a normal script; they mustn’t die right away, but only on average after twelve hours; the turning point is designed to take place in the sixth hour. There must also be a great many arabesques around the inscription itself; the real text only goes around the body in a small strip; the rest of the body is reserved for the embellishments. Can you now appreciate the work of the harrow and of the whole machine? – Watch!"

He jumped onto the ladder, turned a wheel, called down underneath: "Be careful, step aside!" and everything was set in motion. If the cogwheel had not creaked, it would have been splendid. He shook his fist at the noisy wheel as if he had been surprised by it and then threw out his arms, excusing himself to the visitor, and climbed quickly down to watch the functioning of the machine from below. Something was still not in order that only he had noticed; he climbed back up, put both hands inside the plotter, and then instead of using the ladder slid down on one of the rods so as to come back all the quicker, and shouted into the ear of the visitor so as to be understood in the din, with great intensity: "Do you understand the process? The harrow begins to write; when it has finished with the first phase of writing on the man’s back, the padding rolls and slowly turns the body over, to give the harrow more space to work on. Meanwhile the engraved part lies on the cotton, which with its special preparation stops the bleeding and prepares for further deepening of the engraving. Here, as the body is rotated further, the prongs at the edge of the harrow remove the cotton from the wounds, reject them into the pit, and the harrow has more work to perform. In this way the script is engraved ever deeper throughout the entire twelve hours. For the first six hours the condemned man lives almost as beforehand; he suffers only pain. After two hours the felt stump is taken away, for the man has no strength left to cry out any more. Here in this electrically heated dish by the head some warm rice broth is deposited, which the man, if he wishes, can take in with his tongue. No one forsakes that opportunity. I know of no cases, and I have a lot of experience. Only in the sixth hour does he lose the pleasure of eating. I usually knee down right here to observe what happens then. The man rarely swallows the last morsel; he only turns it over in his mouth and spits it into the pit. I have to duck down then, otherwise it goes into my face! How the man becomes still in the sixth hour! Then even the stupidest one begins to understand. It starts around the eyes. From there on it spreads out. A sight that could make one want to go under the harrow oneself. Nothing else happens, the man simply begins to decipher the script; he purses his lips as if he were listening. You have seen that it is not easy to decipher the writing with the eyes, but the man deciphers it with his wounds. It is however a lot of work; he needs six hours to achieve full understanding. Then however the harrow spits him completely out and ejects him into the pit, where he splashes down in the bloodied water and the cotton. Then the judgment is over, and we – the soldier and I – bury him."

The visitor had his ear turned towards the officer and with his hands in his coat pockets was looking at the work of the machine. The condemned man was also looking at it, without understanding. He was bending down a little to look closer at the swinging needles when the soldier, after a gesture from the officer, cut open his shirt and trousers from behind with a knife so that they fell off; he wanted to reach down for the fallen clothes to cover his nakedness, but the soldier lifted him up and shook off the last scraps of clothing. The officer set the machine in motion, and in the aura of silence that now prevailed the condemned man was placed under the harrow. The chain was taken off and in its place the straps were fastened; it almost seemed at first to be a relief for him. And the harrow sank down a step further, as he was a lean man. As the needles touched him, a shudder ran over his skin; he aimlessly stretched his left hand out while the soldier was occupied with the right hand; it was however pointing to where the observers were standing. The officer looked steadily at the visitor from the side, as if he were trying to read in his face the impressions that the execution, that he had at least superficially explained, was making on him.

The strap intended for the wrist broke; apparently the soldier had tightened it too much. The officer had to intervene; the soldier showed him the broken piece of strap. The officer went over to him saying, his face turned towards the visitor: "The machine is so complex that it must here and there tear or break something; however one must not be led astray by that. For the strap moreover there is right away a replacement; I shall use a chain instead; the smoothness of the balancing movements will however certainly be affected for the right arm." And while the chain was being put in place, he added: "The funds allocated for the maintenance of the machine are now very much reduced. Under the former commander there was a fund just for that, to which I had access. There used to be a warehouse here in which all the possible replacement parts were stored. I admit that I was almost wasteful with it, I am referring to that period, not to the present as the new commander maintains, for whom everything is used as a way to criticize the old way of doing things. Now he has placed the funds for the machine under his own administration, and when I order a new belt the torn one has to be produced in justification, the new one comes only ten days later and then of a worse kind that’s not worth much. Nobody cares how I am supposed to operate the machine without straps in the meantime.

The visitor thought to himself: it is always risky to interfere in the affairs of others. He was neither a member of the penal colony nor a citizen of its mother country. If he wanted judge the execution or even to thwart its functioning, they could say to him: you are a foreigner, be quiet! To that he wouldn’t be able to reply, but could only admit to himself that he couldn’t even understand his own conduct, as he had travelled here with the intention of observing and in no way with the intention of interfering with a foreign judicial procedure. Now the situation was certainly very interesting. The injustice of the procedure and the inhumanity of the execution were undeniable. No one could suppose any selfish motivation on the part of the visitor, for the condemned man was a stranger, not a fellow countryman and not at all a man who provoked any feeling of pity in others. The visitor himself had recommendations from high-placed authorities and he had been received here with the greatest politeness; and that he had been invited to assist at the execution would seem to indicate that his impression of this judicial process was being sought. This was all the more probable as the commander, as he had just clearly heard, was no supporter of the procedure and was firmly opposed to the officer.

Then the visitor heard a cry of anger from the officer. He has just thrust the felt stump into the mouth of the condemned man, not without difficulty, when the man in an irresistible fit of nausea closed his eyes and vomited. The officer quickly raised him up from the stump and tried to turn his head towards the pit; but it was too late, the filth flowed over the machine.

"All that’s the commander’s fault!" cried the officer, and shook the brass rods senselessly, "the machine will be as filthy as a pigpen." He showed the visitor with trembling hands what had happened. "Have I not for hours at a time tried to make the commander understand that the day before an execution no food must be given to them? But the lenient new leadership is of a different opinion. The commander’s ladies stuff the man to the gills with sweets before he is taken away. He has been nourished all his life with stinking fish and now he has to eat sweets! Even in that case I wouldn’t object, but why can’t I procure a new felt stump, as I have been requesting for months now? How can anyone take this felt, on which a hundred men in their death throes have sucked and bitten, without wanting to vomit?"

The condemned man had laid his head down again and looked out peaceably, the soldier was busy cleaning the machine with the man’s shirt. The officer went over to the visitor, who instinctively took a step backwards, but the officer took him by the hand and pulled him aside. "I would like to have a few words in confidence with you," he said, "May I?"

"Certainly," said the visitor and listened with eyes lowered.

"This procedure and this execution, which you have occasion to admire here now, have no open partisans any more in our colony. I am its only defender, and at the same time the only defender left of the heritage of the previous commander. As for any further improvements of the procedure, I cannot consider them, as I need all my energy to maintain what we already have. When the former commandant was alive, the colony was full of his adherents; I have to some degree the same power of persuasion as the former commandant, but I quite lack his force; as a result the adherents have gone into hiding - there are still a number of them but none will admit to it. If today, which is an execution day, you go into a teahouse and listen to what is being said, you will perhaps only hear ambiguous comments. Those are clearly from partisans, but they are under the orders of the present commander and in view of his present attitude towards me they are of no use. And now I ask you: because of the commander and his women should this work of a lifetime" – he indicated the machine – "be done away with? Should that be allowed to happen? Even if one is a stranger who has only been on our island for a few days? There is however no time to lose, something is being prepared against my jurisdiction, there are already meetings in the commander’s office to which I am not invited; even your present visit seems to illustrate for me the whole situation; they are cowardly and send you, a foreigner, to the front. How the executions were different beforehand! Already a day before the execution the whole valley was filled with people; everyone came just to watch; early in the morning the commander appeared with his ladies; fanfares woke everyone up; I declared that everything was ready; the whole community – no civil servant of any importance could be absent – placed itself around the machine; this pile of cane chairs is a remnant of those days. The machine was freshly polished and gleaming, and before almost every execution I received new replacement parts. Before a hundred eyes – all spectators were standing on the tips of their toes from there to the mound – the condemned man was laid under the harrow by the commander himself. What a common soldier must do today was my work, the president of the court, and of no one else, and it was my honour. And then the execution began! No dissonant sounds disturbed the functioning of the machine. Many no longer looked on, but lay down on the sand with closed eyes; everyone knew: justice is being done. In the silence one heard only the groans of the condemned man that filtered through the felt. Today the machine no longer manages to force out a strong groan from the condemned man, when the felt is still in position; but in those times a caustic fluid that today can no longer be used dripped out from the engraving needles. And then the sixth hour arrived! It was not possible to accept all the requests to watch from close up. The commander discretely ordered that the children should be given priority; in view of my professional obligations I remained in place; often I kneeled down with two little children in my left and right arms. How we all took in the expression of understanding from the martyred face, how our cheeks were tense at the sight of this finally attained and already passing justice! What a time that was, my friend!"

The officer had clearly forgotten who was standing before him; he had put his arms around the visitor with his head on his shoulder. The visitor was embarrassed, and looked impatiently away from the officer. The soldier had finished his cleaning task and was now pouring rice broth out of a can into the bowl. He was scarcely paying attention to the condemned man, who seemed to have quite recovered and began to lap up the broth with his tongue. The soldier pushed it away, as it was meant for some time later, but he nevertheless callously dug his own dirty hands into it and ate some of it himself right in front of the hungry man.

The officer quickly took hold of himself. "I didn’t want to upset you," he said, "I know that now it is impossible to make those times understand. Moreover, the machine is still in working order and functions for itself. It functions for its own good even when it is standing here alone in this valley. And the corpse always falls in such an incredibly graceful flight into the pit at the end, even if there are no longer as before hundreds of spectators gathered around the pit like flies. In those days we had to install a railing around the pit, that has been done away with for a long time now."

The visitor wanted to turn his face away from the officer’s and looked aimlessly around. The officer thought he was looking at the desert in the valley; he took hold of his hands, turned him towards himself to be able to look into his eyes, and questioned: "Do you see the shame of it?"

But the visitor remained silent. The officer desisted for a moment; with legs stretched apart, his hands on his hips, he stood still and stared at the ground. Then he smiled encouragingly at the visitor and said: "I was standing nearby yesterday when the commander invited you. I heard the invitation. I know the commander. I understood right away what he was aiming at with the invitation. Although he has enough power to take steps against me, he doesn’t dare to do so yet; he prefers to confront me with you, a distinguished foreigner, and your judgement. His calculations have been carefully thought out: this is only your second day on the island, you haven’t known the former commandant and his way of thinking, you are biased by your European outlook, perhaps you are an opponent of capital punishment in general and of an execution by machine in particular, in addition to that you will see the execution taking place without official participation, sadly, with a machine damaged to some extent – would that now, all in all (so the commander thinks) not easily be enough to make you consider that my method is not proper? And if you consider that it is not proper, would you not refuse to keep silent about it (I am still referring to the way of thinking of the commander), as you have confidence in your judgement that has so often been put to the test? You have however seen the customs of many peoples and learnt to respect them, and therefore you will probably not speak out against the procedure with the same energy that you would have used in your own homeland. But the commander doesn’t need that. A passing, quite offhand word would be enough. It doesn’t have to exactly reflect your convictions, as long as it seems to be in agreement with his. That he will question you cleverly, I am certain of that. And his ladies will sit around in a circle with their ears wide open; you will perhaps say something like: ’The judicial procedure is different in my country’ or ’We inform the condemned man of his sentence’ or ’We have other punishments than capital punishment’ or ’We only used torture in the Middle Ages’. Those are all remarks that are so correct that they obviously seem to you to be innocent statements that don’t refer to my procedure. But how will the commander interpret them? I can just see him, the good commander, suddenly getting up from his chair and rushing out to the veranda, I can see his ladies, how they stream after him, and then I can hear his voice – the ladies call it a voice of thunder – saying: ’A distinguished European researcher, who is accustomed to examining the judicial procedures in many different countries, has just said that our antiquated custom is inhuman. After such a judgement from such a person is it naturally no longer possible for me to tolerate these methods. As of today I order that –’ and so on. You understand, you have not said what he claims you have said, you have not called my procedure inhuman, on the contrary, in your heart you see it as most humane and worthy of humankind, and you also admire this machine – but it is too late; you do not go out onto the balcony that is so full of ladies; you want them to listen to you, you want to cry out; but a woman’s hand goes over your mouth – and I and the work of the former commander are lost."

The visitor had to suppress a smile; the problem that he had thought to be so difficult had become so simple. He said evasively: "You overestimate my influence; the commander has read my letter of introduction, he knows that I am no expert on judicial procedures. If I do express my opinion, it would be my personal opinion, no more important than that of anyone else, and in any case of less importance than that of the commander, who in this penal colony, as I have been led to believe, has very extensive powers. If his opinion of this process is as firmly established as you think, then I fear that the end of this procedure is in sight, with no need of my modest contribution."

Did the officer understand that already? No, he did not understand it yet. He briskly shook his head, looked briefly over at the condemned man and at he soldier, who flinched and left the rice alone, went closer to the visitor, and stared not at his face but vaguely at his vest, and said in a lighter tone than before: "You do not know the commander; you think that you are – if you will pardon the expression – quite harmlessly in place here between him and us others; your influence, believe me, cannot be exaggerated. I was quite happy when I heard that you alone would witness the execution. This measure of the commander was directed against me, but instead I will use it to my advantage. Undistracted by false whisperings and contemptuous looks – which they could not have avoided had there been a bigger audience – you have listened to my explanations and seen the machine, and are now about to witness the execution. Your opinion is certainly already formed; if any uncertainties remain, seeing the execution will set them aside. And now I ask you to help me against the commander!"

The visitor did not let him continue. "How can I do that," he cried out, "that is quite impossible. I can be as little use to you as I can harm him."

"You can," said the officer. The visitor was startled to see that the officer was clenching his fist. "You can," repeated the officer more insistently. "I have a plan, that must succeed. You think that your influence is not sufficient. I know that it is. But granted that you are right, is it not then all the more necessary to do everything possible to be able to continue with this whole procedure? Listen to my plan. For it to be carried out, it is above all necessary that today in the colony you use the utmost reserve about your judgement of the procedure. If you are not directly questioned about it, you must not in any case utter an opinion; your statements have to be short and vague; it should be evident that it is difficult for you to talk about it, that you feel bitter about it, that if you have to talk openly about it you begin to curse. I am not asking you to lie, in no way; you should only answer curtly something like ’yes, yes, I have seen the execution,’ or ’yes, I have heard all of the explanations.’ Only that, nothing more. As for the bitterness that people should notice, it would be enough for it not to be to the commander’s way of thinking. Of course he will completely misunderstand and interpret it in his own way. That is the basis of my plan. Tomorrow there will be a big headquarters meeting presided by the commander, who naturally intends to make a show out of it. A gallery has been installed around the meeting room, that is always full of people. I have been summoned to take part in the deliberations, but I am extremely reluctant to do so. In any case you will be invited to participate: if you adhere to my plan, the invitation will become a pressing request. Should you however for whatever unknown reason not be invited, you must firmly ask to be allowed to attend; that you will then be authorised is certain. Then, tomorrow morning sit with the ladies in the commander’s lodge. He will for sure often verify with a glance that you are up there. After various indifferent, ridiculous commercial affairs of interest only for the members – mostly about harbour works, always harbour works – the question of the penal procedure will be raised. In case it is not brought up by the commander’s party, or not soon enough, then I will ensure that it is bought up. I will get up and make a report on today’s execution. Quite short, just the report. Such reports are not normally made there, but I shall do it anyway. The commander will thank me, as usual, with a friendly smile and then, he won’t be able to hold back, he will take advantage of the occasion. ’Just now’ he will say or something suchlike, ’a report of the execution has been made. I only want to add to this report that the distinguished researcher, who as you all know has so exceptionally honoured our colony with his visit, has witnessed this execution. And our assembly today is made all the more important by his presence. Do we not want to ask this important researcher now how he judges this execution in the old manner, and the procedure that preceded it?’ Naturally there will be applause on all sides, general agreement, and I shall be the loudest of all. The commander will now bow towards you and say: ’Then I shall ask him the question on behalf of us all.’ And now you come to the railing. Put your hands on it for all to see, otherwise the ladies will take them and play with the fingers. – And now we come to your talk. I don’t know how I shall be able to support the tension of the hours between now and then. In your speech you must not be restricted, say the truth with emphasis, lean over the railing, shout out, yes, shout out your opinion to the commander, your unshakeable conviction. But perhaps you do not want to do that, it’s not in keeping with your character, in your country people behave differently, that is true; that is also quite sufficient, don’t stand up, just say a few words, whisper them, it will be enough that the officials beneath you hear them; you don’t have to talk at all about the failed part of the execution, about the creaky wheel, the broken strap, the reused felt, no, I take all that upon myself, and believe me, if my talk is not interrupted, it will force them to their knees, they will have to acknowledge: former commander, I bow before you. – That is my plan; will you help me carry it out? But of course you want to, more than that, you must."

And the office took the visitor by both arms and looked at him straight in the face, breathing heavily. The last sentence had been shouted so loudly that even the soldier and the condemned man had looked up; in spite of not being able to understand, they both stopped eating and looked at the visitor while continuing to chew.

From the beginning there had been no doubt about the answer that he had to give; life had taught him too much to be able to hesitate now; he was basically honourable and he was not afraid. Nevertheless he hesitated an instant because of the stares of the soldier and the condemned man. Finally however he said, as he had to: "No."

The officer blinked his eyes several times, but nevertheless did not take his gaze away. "Would you like an explanation?" offered the visitor. The officer nodded silently that he would. "I am an opponent of these methods," the visitor now said, "even before you took me into your confidence – that naturally I shall not betray under any circumstances – I was already wondering if I had the right to protest against your methods and if my protest could have the slightest chances of success. It was obvious to whom I must first speak: naturally to the commander. You have made that even more clear to me, without having particularly reinforced my opinion, on the contrary, your honourable conviction touched me, although it cannot lead me astray."

The officer remained silent, turned towards the machine, took hold of one of the brass rods and then, bent somewhat backwards, looked up at the plotter, as if he was verifying that everything was in order. The soldier and the condemned man seemed to have become friendly. Difficult as it was for him to make any movements, he was so tightly fastened, the condemned man made a gesture to the soldier, who leaned over him; the man whispered something to him, and the soldier nodded in agreement.

The visitor went towards the officer and said; "You still do not know what I shall do. I shall certainly give the commander my point of view, but not in a meeting, only eye-to-eye; I shall also not stay here long enough to be able to be summoned to any meeting, as I shall be leaving early tomorrow morning or at least be embarking then."

It didn’t seem as if the officer had heard. "The procedure hasn’t convinced you either," he said to himself and smiled, like an elder smiles at a child and keeps his real thoughts hidden behind the smile.

"Then it’s time," he said finally and looked suddenly at the visitor with clear eyes that harboured a kind of request, a semblance of an appeal for participation.

"It is time for what?" asked the visitor uncomfortably, but received no reply.

"You are free," said the officer to the condemned man in his own language. He did not at first believe it. "Go on, you are free, "said the officer. For the first time the man’s face became really alive. Was it true? Was it a passing fancy of the officer’s that could be rescinded? Had the foreign visitor arranged to have him graced? What was it? His face seemed to be expressing all of this. But not for long. Whatever the reason was, he certainly wanted to be free if he was could be and he began to shake himself, as much as the harrow would allow it.

"You are going to rip the straps off," cried the officer, "be calm! We’ll open them up!" And he put himself to work with the help of the soldier, to whom he made a sign. The condemned man laughed softly and wordlessly, sometimes turning towards the officer, sometimes towards the soldier, without forgetting the visitor.

"Pull him up here," the officer ordered the soldier. That had to be done carefully because of the harrow. The condemned man already had some marks on his back from the straps as a result of his impatience.

Thereafter the officer scarcely bothered himself with him at all. He went up to the visitor, took out the little leather briefcase again, leafed through it, finally found the page that he was looking for and showed it to the visitor. "Read it," he said.

"I can’t," said the visitor, "I have already said that I can’t read these pages."

"Nevertheless, look at the page carefully," said the officer and came beside him, to read it with him. As that was of no help, he led his little finger over it from a considerable height, as if the page in no case might be touched, to help the visitor read it. The visitor made an effort, at the very least to give the officer some satisfaction, but to no avail. The officer began to spell out the text and then he read it out continuously. " ’Be just!’ – it says – now you can read it."

The visitor leaned so deeply over the page that the officer, fearing that he would touch it, moved it further away; then the visitor said nothing more, but it was obvious that he still had not been able to read anything. "It says, ’Be Just!’ " the officer said again.

"That may be," said the visitor, "I do believe that it says so there."

"Very well," said the officer, at least partially satisfied, and went up the ladder with the page; he inserted it with great care into the plotter and began what was clearly a major reorganisation of the wheelworks; it was a very laborious task, he also had to manipulate very small cogwheels, and sometimes the head of the officer disappeared completely inside the plotter to control the settings precisely enough.

The visitor followed this uninterrupted work from down below; his neck became stiff and his eyes were hurting from the sunlight streaming down from the sky. The soldier and the condemned man only bothered with one another. The shirt and the trousers of the condemned man, that had been lying in the pit, were lifted up by the soldier on the point of his bayonet. The shirt was frightfully dirty, and the man washed it in the basin. When he put the shirt and trousers on, both the soldier and the condemned man burst out laughing, as they were both split all the way up in the back. Perhaps the condemned man felt himself obliged to amuse the soldier, for he turned himself around in a circle with the torn clothes in front of the soldier, who bent down and clapped himself on the knee, laughing. Nevertheless they still tried to behave correctly in the presence of the officer and the visitor.

When the officer was finally ready, he glanced over all the sections of the machine with a smile, put the covering back on the plotter that had been uncovered, climbed down, looked into the pit and then at the condemned man, seemed satisfied that he had recuperated his clothes, went over to the wash basin to clean his hands, saw too late how dirty it was, appeared to be somewhat saddened that he could no longer wash his hands, dipped them finally – this substitute did not satisfy him but he had to accept it – in the sand, stood up and began to unbutton his uniform. The two ladies’ handkerchiefs that he had stuffed behind his tie then fell into his hands. "Here are your handkerchiefs," he said and threw them to the condemned man. And to the visitor he said in explanation: "Presents from ladies."

In spite of the evident haste with which he took off the vest of his uniform and then completely undressed himself, he handled each piece of clothing with care; he even ran his fingers over the silver braids on his uniform and shook a tassel upright into place. This care was hardly compatible though with the way he threw each piece of clothing into the pit with a reluctant flick as soon as he had finished handling it. The last thing that remained was his short sword with its sling. He took the sword out of its sheath, broke it in two, then took up everything, the pieces of sword, the sheath and the sling and threw them so roughly away that they made a clanging sound down below in the pit.

Then he was standing naked there. The visitor bit his lip and said nothing. He knew full well what was about to happen, but he had no right to hinder the officer in any way. If the procedure to which the officer was so attached really was on the point of being eliminated – possibly as a consequence of the intervention of the visitor, who felt duty-bound to have come – then the officer was behaving quite correctly; the traveler would in his position not have done otherwise.

The soldier and the condemned man did not at all understand at first, for a while they had not been paying attention. The condemned man was quite overjoyed to have handkerchiefs again, but he couldn’t rejoice about it for long, for the soldier snatched them away from him with a quick, unforeseeable gesture. Then the man tried to pull the handkerchiefs out of the back of his belt where the soldier had stuck them, but the latter was watchful. They were quarreling like this half-playfully. Only when the officer was standing completely naked did they take notice. The condemned man in particular seemed to be the most affected by the new situation. What had happened to him was now happening to the officer. Perhaps it would go to its final conclusion. The foreign visitor had probably given an order for it to be done. That was also revenge. Without having himself having had to go through it all the way, he would thus be revenged at the end. A big, silent laugh appeared on his face and did not go away.

The officer had now turned towards the machine. Although it had already been quite clear that he fully understood the machine, now it was almost overwhelming how he interacted with it and how it obeyed him. He had only approached his hand to the harrow and it rose up and sank down several times until it had reached the right level to receive him; he only had to grasp the bed at the edge and it immediately began to quiver; the felt stump rose up towards his mouth, one saw that the officer didn’t want to take it in, but the hesitation only lasted an instant, he submitted right away and it went in. Everything was ready, except that the straps hung down over the sides, but they were obviously unnecessary, as the officer did not need to be tied down. Then the condemned man noticed the loose straps and felt that the execution was not perfectly in order if the straps were not tied down, he zealously made a sign to the soldier, and they came over to attach the officer. Who already had his foot extended to push the crank that would set the plotter in motion; then he saw that the two men had arrived, and he pulled his foot back and let himself be strapped down. Now however he could not reach the starting crank; neither the soldier nor the condemned mad would be able to find it, and the visitor had firmly decided not to make a move. It was unnecessary; scarcely had the straps been put in place, the machine set to work; the bed trembled, the needles danced on the skin, the harrow swung back and forth. The visitor had already been staring at it for a while before he remembered that a wheel in the plotter should have been squeaking; but all was quiet, not the slightest hum was to be heard.

The machine literally avoided attracting attention by means of this silent functioning. The visitor looked over towards the soldier and the condemned man. The condemned man was the livelier of the two, everything about the machine interested him; at times he was bending down, at times he was leaning over it, he always had the forefinger pointing out, showing something to the soldier. The visitor found this distressing. He had decided to remain here until the end, but he couldn’t stand the view of those two for long. "Go back to your quarters," he said. The soldier was perhaps ready to do so, but the condemned man took the order as a punishment. He begged pleadingly with folded hands to be allowed to stay, and as the visitor, shaking his head, refused to give way, he even kneeled down. The visitor saw that orders were of no use and wanted to go over and push the two away. Then he heard a noise from the plotter. He looked up. Was that a cogwheel malfunctioning? But it was something else. The cover of the plotter rose slowly up and then swung open. The teeth of a cogwheel became apparent and were rising up, and soon the whole wheel appeared; it was as if some powerful force was squeezing the plotter together, so that there was no more room left for the wheel; the wheel pivoted towards the edge of the plotter and fell down, stuck upright for an instant in the sand and then fell over. But already another rose up and many followed it, large ones, small ones, scarcely distinguishable one from another they all came to the same end, it always seemed as if the plotter must in any case now be quite empty, and then a new, particularly numerous group would appear, rise up, fall down, stick in the sand and fall over. With this the condemned man quite forgot about the visitor’s order, the cogwheels completely fascinated him, he always wanted to take hold of one, the soldier came along to help him, but drew his hand back fearfully, for yet another wheel came right after it that intimidated him, at least during the first phase of its fall.

The visitor for his part was troubled; the machine was evidently falling apart; its quiet functioning was an illusion; he felt that he must now attend to the officer, who could no longer take care of himself. While his attention had been taken up by the fall of the cogwheels he had neglected to observe the rest of the machine but now, after the last cogwheel of the plotter had gone down, when he looked at the harrow he had a new, even sharper surprise. The harrow was no longer writing, it was only sticking the needles in, and the bed was no longer swinging the body back and forth, but was lifting it up with a quivering motion onto the needles. The visitor wanted to intervene, if possible to bring everything to a stop; this was not the ordeal that the officer had wanted to experience, this was direct murder. He stretched out his hands. The harrow had already raised the transpierced body up over the side, as it normally only did in the twelfth hour. Blood few in a hundred streams, not mixed with water, as the water pipes had also now broken down. And then there was the final malfunction – the body did not free itself from the long needles, but hung over the pit with blood pouring out, without falling down. The harrow wanted to return to its previous position, but as it saw for itself that it wasn’t free of its burden, it remained poised over the pit.
"Help! Help!" the visitor cried to the soldier and the condemned man on the other side and took hold of the officer’s feet. He wanted to press against the feet and for the other two to take hold of the officer’s head on the other side, so that he could be slowly lifted off the needles. But now the two couldn’t make up their minds to come over, and the condemned man turned right around; the visitor had to go over to them and drag them forcibly over to the officer’s head. There he looked almost against his will at the face of the corpse. It was as it had been when he was alive: no sign of the promised redemption was discernible; the officer had not found in the machine what all the others had found there; the lips were closed tightly together, the eyes were open and seemed alive, the gaze was calm and convinced, the tip of a big steel needle pierced the forehead.

***

As the visitor, with the soldier and the condemned man behind him, came up to the first buildings in the colony, the soldier pointed to one and said: "Here is the teahouse."

On the ground floor of the building was a deep, low, cavern-like area whose walls and ceiling were blackened with smoke. It was open all along the street side. Although the teahouse was hardly different from the other buildings of the colony, that apart from the palatial construction of the commander were all very shabby, it evoked historical souvenirs of the colony’s past for the visitor and he felt the force of the bygone times. He approached closer, followed by his attendants, passing between the unoccupied tables in the street in front of the teahouse, and breathed the cool, moist air that wafted out from the interior.

"The old man is buried here," said the soldier, "a place in the graveyard was refused to him. They were undecided for a time where to bury him and finally they buried him here. The officer certainly didn’t tell you about that, for naturally he was most ashamed of it. He even tried to dig the old man up at night a few times, but he was always chased away."

"Where is the grave?" asked the visitor, who couldn’t believe the soldier. Straightaway both of them, the condemned man as well as the soldier, went up in front of him and pointed with outstretched hands further away, to where the grave was supposed to be. They led the visitor up to the back wall, where men were sitting at a few tables. They were apparently harbour workers, strong men with short, shining, full black beards. All were in shirtsleeves, their shirts were torn, they were poor, humble folk. As the visitor neared, a few got up and stood against the wall, looking straight at him.

"He’s a foreigner," the visitor heard in whispered tones around him, "he wants to see the grave." They pushed one of the tables aside, under which there really was a gravestone. It was a simple stone, low enough to be able to be hidden under a table. It bore an inscription in very small script, that the visitor had to go down on his knees to be able to read. The inscription was: "Here rests the old commander. His followers, who now cannot be named, have dug this grave for him and set this stone. There is a prophecy that the commander will rise up after a certain number of years and lead his followers out of this building to reconquer this colony. Believe and wait!"

After the visitor had read it and stood up, he saw a ring of men standing around him and smiling, as if they had read the inscription with him, found it amusing and wanted him to be of the same opinion. The visitor pretended not to have noticed, distributed a few coins among them, waited until the table had been pushed back on top of the gravestone, left the teahouse and went down to the harbour.

The soldier and the condemned man had found friends in the teahouse, who kept them with them. They soon had to tear themselves away, for the visitor was already in the middle of a long stairway leading down to the boat as they were running after him. Apparently they wanted at the last minute to make the visitor take them with him. While the visitor was dealing down below with the boatman about the transfer to the steamboat, the two rushed down the steps silently, not daring to cry out. But when they came down the visitor was already in the boat and the boatman had just pushed off from the dock. They could have jumped into the boat, but the visitor raised a heavily knotted rope from the bottom of the boat, threatened them with it and prevented them from jumping.


In the Penal Colony - Kindle version
In the Penal Colony - ePub version

Footnotes

[1the word “robot” was invented in 1920 by the Czech playwright Karel Capek for his 1921 play “ R.U.R. ” (Rossum’s Universal Robots).