IF AS HAS BEEN proposed, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter from Jail to the Birmingham Clergy" were added to the New Testament, a text from Kafka's work might with equal appropriateness be added to the Old. But what? There are good reasons for choosing the story "In the Penal Colony" (inexplicably omitted from this anthology, though Erich Heller discusses it in his fine introductory essay) as a commentary on the spiritual devastation of following the letter rather than the spirit of the Law. "The Great Wall of China" would serve as a guide to the perplexed: It touches to the quick the eternal problem of obeying, here and now, divine edicts issued far away and at a remote time, especially when their accurate transmission is in doubt.

My choice would be a parable from The Trial:

Before the Law stands a doorkeeper on guard. To this doorkeeper there comes a man from the country who begs for admittance to the Law. But the doorkeeper says that he cannot admit the man at the moment. The man, on reflection, asks if he will be allowed, then, to enter later. "It is possible," answers the doorkeeper, "but not at this moment." Since the door leading into the Law stands open as usual and the doorkeeper steps to one side, the man bends down to peer through the entrance. When the doorkeeper sees that, he laughs and says: "If you are so strongly tempted, try to get in without my permission. But note that I am powerful. And I am only the lowest doorkeeper. From hall to hall, keepers stand at every door, one more powerful than the other. And the sight of the third man is already more than even I can stand." These are difficulties which the man from the country has not expected to meet, the Law, he thinks, should be accessible to every man and at all times, but when he looks more closely at the doorkeeper in his furred robe, with his huge pointed nose and long thin Tartar beard, he decides that he had better wait until he gets permission to enter. The doorkeeper gives him a stool and lets him sit down at the side of the door. There he sits waiting for days and years. He makes many attempts to be allowed in and wearies the doorkeeper with his importunity. The doorkeeper often engages him in brief conversation, asking him about his home and about other matters, but the questions are put quite impersonally, as great men put questions, and always conclude with the statement that the man cannot be allowed to enter yet. The man, who has equipped himself with many things for his journey, parts with all he has, however valuable, in the hope of bribing the doorkeeper. The doorkeeper accepts it all, saying, however, as he takes each gift: "I take this only to keep you from feeling that you have left something undone." During all these long years the man watches the doorkeeper almost incessantly. He forgets about the other doorkeepers, and this one seems to him the only barrier between himself and the Law. In the first years he curses his evil fate aloud; later, as he grows old, he only mutters to himself. He grows childish, and since in his prolonged study of the doorkeeper he has learned to know even the fleas in his fur collar, he begs the very fleas to help him and to persuade the doorkeeper to change his mind. Finally his eyes grow dim and he does not know whether the world is really darkening around him or whether his eyes are only deceiving him. But in the darkness he can now perceive a radiance that streams inextinguishably from the door of the Law. Now his life is drawing to a close. Before he dies, all that he has experienced during the whole time of his sojourn condenses in his mind into one question, which he has never yet put to the doorkeeper. He beckons the doorkeeper, since he can no longer raise his stiffening body. The doorkeeper has to bend far down to hear him, for the difference in size between them has increased very much to the man's disadvantage. "What do you want to know now?" asks the doorkeeper, "you are insatiable." "Everyone strives to attain the Law," answers the man, "how does it come about, then, that in all these years no one has come seeking admittance but me?" The doorkeeper perceives that the man is nearing his end and his hearing is failing, so he bellows in his ear: "No one but you could gain admittance through this door, since this door was intended for you alone. I am now going to shut it."

The man who wrote that perfect text was a lawyer by profession, Herr Doktor Franz Kafka, as he was addressed. The firm for which he worked was a cat's cradle of red tape binding together various government agencies of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and an insurance company called The Workers' Accident Insurance Institute. If you were a carpenter who had lost a finger to a saw and had kept your premiums up, you could seek compensation by taking your policy to the right office. If your language was Czech, Yiddish, Magyar, or Slovak, you would discover that the Institute speaks German. (Kafka's first job was with the Czech branch of an Italian insurance company.) Some of the laws your counsel must evince were drafted in Prague, some in Vienna, some by the Roman Senate, some by God and handed over to Moses on Sinai. Luck with you, you might land in the office of Dr. Kafka, author of On Mandatory Insurance in the Construction Industry (1908), Measures to Prevent Accidents in Factories and Farms (1911), and (as you could not know) a novel called Amerika which begins with a description of the Statue of Liberty holding aloft not her torch but a sword.

Dr. Kafka was a sympathetic soul with a gift for good talk and friendship. Memoirs by his friends show him to have been a fascinating companion. His wit was delicious; he was astoundingly well-read, and his sense of humor was famous around Prague. The past decade has seen the publication of his love letters, from which a new and unsuspected Kafka emerges, an ardent suitor with a confusing number of fiancees: Julie Wohryzek, Milena Jesenka-Pollak, Felice Bauer, Dora Dymont, Grete Bloch, and at least another whose name has not yet been found. The pattern was always the same: undying love, the prospect of a happy marriage, and the awful doubt that his writing would dry up if he were happy.

For all the writing comes from the anguish that few of his friends knew anything about. He wrote in night hours made available to him by insomnia, and he wrote about the dark, inmost crypt of the human condition. He once said that he understood the Fall of Man better than any man now living.

From Kierkegaard (and his Jewish heart) he had taken his theme that we are all guilty and live in dread of that nameless guilt. Freud was writing that our dreams dramatize that guilt nightly, and that what we feel guilty about is guilt itself, the result of irrational taboos which we transgressed and were reprimanded for at an age earlier than we can remember. Some of these taboos are cultural and religious and go back to the dawn of time; we cannot seem to rid ourselves of them. One of Kafka's most astute observations was that civilization keeps laws on its books which it has no intention of obeying and is wholly reluctant to abandon.

For literary models Kafka, like all geniuses, was so eclectic that he seems to be that impossible creature, an utterly original writer. He learned his simple sentences from Flaubert and folktales. He largely took his subjects from Robert Walser (1878-1956), a Swiss novelist who first defined the desperation which is the existential context for all of Kafka's characters: the industrial serf who for a living sells his life in spans of time (9 to 5 behind a counter). He took motifs from Tolstoy, Dickens, Lewis Carroll, the Bible, his dreams, the cases at law that crossed his desk from 9 to 5 daily.

No writer has spoken more urgently to our time. He is our prophet. He seems to have described a world of which at his death in 1924 he could know nothing, but which has been coming true ever since. His three sisters and two of his fiancees died in Nazi concentration camps. The agony of his people, the Jews, seems implicit in every line he wrote. He prophesied the current pedantry of the law whereby the accused has all the privileges, the victim none. The Pentagon, the Kremlin, the seeming idiocy of politicians (who will vote for arms limitations if they can have more weapons), the helplessness of all of us before bureaucracies (the IRS will send you to prison for declarations it has filled out for you) -- pure Kafka, all.

This anthology is the first to bring so much of Kafka (fiction, diaries, letters, parables) together in one volume. Teachers and those just beginning to discover Kafka will find it a rich and useful collection.