April 22, 2009

If You Read One Thing Today, Please Make It This! - With Apologies To Tania...


… who, I’m sure, will generously excuse the shameless borrowing - and adapting - of the title of a recent post.

I use it because I am as incensed now (as Tania was, for different reasons, then) at reports of yet another senseless miscarriage of justice. Not, this time, in Iran, Zimbabwe or Sudan. But here in Spain. And a tale worthy of Kafka in its depiction of the persecuted individual in a nightmarishly impersonal, bureaucratically labyrinthine world of alienation and dislocation.

Kafka’s novel, The Trial, you may recall, recounts the hopeless search for the truth by Josef K, accused without cause of an unspecified crime by an arbitrarily nameless, claustrophobically faceless court. The central character, arrested in his bedroom early one morning, is forced to embark on his own defence which comes to dominate his life - to no avail. He muddles along with energy and persistence, never giving up. Though written in 1925, it is difficult to think of another dystopian novel that so aptly encapsulates, and foreshadows, all the miscarriages of justice still being committed somewhere in the world - and searches for truth still denied.

Here it is the true story of Juan Enrique T., a 30 year old civil servant from Griñon, Madrid. A similar age to Josef K, he is likewise referred to by his initial. Although a requirement in Spain, this nonetheless unwittingly imbues the tale with an additional layer of surreally nebulous ambiguity of which Kafka himself would have doubtlessly approved!

Juan Enrique T., then, travelled to Granada to see for himself the famous Holy Week celebrations - about which he’d read so much. But the last procession he saw was his own: to prison. Mystifyingly, the tourist was confused with a man with a similar name who had already been convicted of money laundering and already imprisoned by order of the National High Court!

Juan Enrique T.’s ordeal began at 6am on the Thursday morning of Holy Week when the police knocked on his hotel door and asked him, bizarrely, if he was "expecting a police visit" before ordering him to get dressed and clamping on handcuffs. "As they didn’t tell me what it was about, I thought it might be a traffic fine I hadn’t been notified of," Juan Enrique T. later explains.

In the cell, he then spent two interminable hours, with no information, until he was told there was a warrant for his arrest and that he was to be transferred to the local prison. "To be sitting there handcuffed, in the van, in the cell, the arrival at the prison, the feeling of impotence — they take away your watch, your cellphone — it was quite an ordeal. But wait for this one! On the Sunday, when I was already in prison, they went back to the hotel to arrest me again! It was an accumulation of errors — or horrors. I felt humiliated."

Though he tried to explain that he was innocent and asked for a lawyer, he says he was told in the magistrate’s court that he only had the right to sign the prison entry form, "because it was an ‘order from above.’ " At that moment, he adds now, "I felt the Alhambra fall on top of me."

Of the cell he remembers just two things: the frigid April air pouring in through the window, giving him a severe cold, and the dull, metallic clang of the door. "At first I was so afraid that I went along the corridor with my head down, trying not to look the others in the eye."

Later, though, it was the prisoners themselves who alone kept up his spirits, saying he would soon be free. For the civil servant, however, it was almost impossible to believe his Kafkaesque nightmare would ever end - until, eventually, he passed out of the gate, lifted his head and saw on the horizon the snowy peaks of the Sierra Nevada. Freedom at last…!

"The way the system works, I was sure I would be there at least a week — and that they would transfer me to Madrid, to the National High Court," Juan Enrique T. says now, adding that what he felt most was rage, indignation and total defenselessness. "I thought of Christ, and tried to concentrate on the Resurrection and on saying to myself: ‘Forgive them, Lord, for they know not what they do’."

Ironically, on the way out, the prison clerk wrote his name wrongly: Juan Antonio for Juan Enrique. He told them to correct it, "in case they think I’ve escaped, and come for me again." The guards found this extremely funny.

In the U.K. or U.S., defence lawyers would be talking about compensation, false imprisonment, abuse of human rights etc etc. Yet, though he's now off work suffering from extreme depression, no one has even called to apologize…

The world has changed immensely since the publication of The Trial. But its themes are timeless - and probably even more relevant today. Governments and bureaucracies still oppress the powerless. Life is still subject to the caprices of fate and officialdom. We still encounter pettiness as well as nobility of humanity in our individual lives.

And, like The Trial, the story of Juan Enrique T. is in its own way, too, a cautionary tale for those who care to reflect on the universalities of the human condition and the universalities of bureaucratic desires to control it.

Indeed, a tale worthy of Kafka...

2 comments:

pinklea said...

This is an appalling story. To think that this happens NOW, in the 21st century!

Mind you, I shouldn't be so surprised. In Vancouver, there is currently an inquest into the tasering death of a Polish man a couple of years ago. He had just arrived at the airport after the long journey from Poland, exhausted and unable to speak English. He was behaving oddly, the police were summoned, he didn't respond the way they expected him to, the police tasered him 5 times and he died. The inquest is trying to determine why this all happened and to give some closure to his grieving mother - and maybe to prevent this from ever happening again.

Sadly, there is injustice everywhere.

Nora Johnson said...

Pinklea: The taser incident you describe is indeed deplorable! So much unnecessary pain and anguish caused to so many innocent people...

This post was a bit of a rant, I know, but I find myself becoming increasingly incensed with politicians' typically formulaic responses to such incidents.

Responses along the lines of: "We have looked at this problem/issue/failing most carefully, put in place brand-new procedures of the highest quality
and can categorically assure the public this will NEVER happen again".

And, then, a few months/years later, history repeats itself...

I am so heartened by, and grateful for, the extremely high quality, intelligence and generosity shown by fellow bloggers in addressing and commenting on these continuing and dreadful instances of abuse and injustice.

Many thanks!

Nora