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Kafka And Dostoevsky: Was 'The Trial' A Hidden Rewriting Of 'Crime And Punishment'?

A Colombian student of Franz Kafka insists works by the 20th century Czech author, like The Trial, are so close to Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment as to be versions of it — creating potential trouble for European publishing houses.

photo of a metal statue of Franz Kafka in Prague

Franz Kafka's statue in Prague

Reinaldo Spitaletta

BOGOTÁ After years of scrutiny and research, a Colombian mathematician armed with with tables and calculations has made what he says is a shocking literary discovery: The Trial, Franz Kafka's celebrated 1915 depiction of a nonsensical trial for an unspecified crime, is a rewritten version of Fyodor Dostoevsky's classic Crime and Punishment.

A Medellín-born teacher and fan of detective stories, Guillermo Sánchez Trujillo believes he has solved one of the great literary mysteries of modern times, both in identifying the source of The Trial and the order of its chapters, which seemed to have evaded Kafka students for a century.

The Trial, he says, is a palimpsest, or a "hidden rewriting," of Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky's 1866 story of a murder investigation set in late imperial Russia.

This astounding conclusion has earned Sánchez a not small amount of disapproval, and even obstruction, from the literary and publishing realms. In 2005, he published "a critical edition" of The Trial (in Spanish), in the order he believed was intended by its author.


Kafka, a Prague native, died in 1924 at the age of 40.

Before Sánchez's findings, no Kafka expert, no biographers like Reiner Stach, and no prominent publishers like Klaus Wagenbach, had managed to resolve the conundrum of the order of The Trial's chapters, nor had they discerned a source of inspiration. None had supposed that The Trial could be set not in Prague, but in Saint Petersburg, and that the events surrounding its character Joseph K were inspired by those around the student Raskolnikov, the protagonist of Crime and Punishment.

Sanchez begins his investigation 

Sánchez began investigating the origins of The Trial in 1983, the centenary of Kafka's birth. He read Wagenbach's biography of Kafka, and found out that the Czech writer had once expressed admiration for Dostoevsky in a letter to a friend. In that letter, Kafka qualified literature as "an axe to break the frozen sea inside us," which prompted a link in Sánchez's mind with the axe used by Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. Sánchez began an investigative and comparative odyssey through both novels, which led him to his recent discovery.

Today Sánchez lives in the district of Santa Elena, outside Medellín. He believes Crime and Punishment to be the source not just of The Trial but of other works by Kafka. In 2005, he wrote in the introduction to his "critical edition" of The Trial that Kafka "did not write texts but palimpsests, and one needed to reveal the hidden text, which was the one feeding and giving meaning to his stories."

Literature was not an activity for Kafka but his life.

In his research, Sánchez has found the forms and structures governing Kafka's writings and reasons for his creative crises, difficult relations with women (like Felice Bauer), and for encrypting his writings.

A complete manuscript of The Trial exhibited in Berlin

Weiser Martin/CTK/ZUMA

The trial 

"For Kafka life was a literary adventure, and like Don Quijote, he went out to live the adventures he had read, so he could then write about them," Sánchez wrote in his introduction.

Did he even consider himself an author? It's widely known that he'd instructed his friend and trustee Max Brod to burn all his manuscripts posthumously, but Brod ignored this — frankly Kafkaesque — request and went on to publish The Trial, with a bit of guesswork in ordering the chapters.

Sánchez's line of inquiry has prompted run-ins with publishers, both in Europe and in Colombia, and problems with royalties (they "got him" with those, he says). After setbacks, some months ago and at personal expense, he published another, "complete and ordered version" of The Trial, which follows "the original" plot. A few copies have been printed, almost all destined "for friends."

For Sánchez, it has been, well, a trial. For a century, the order of the published text was in doubt, and now, as the puzzle begins to reveal its picture, he has aroused suspicions. His latest edition of The Trial, he says, "will open the doors to the Kafkaian labyrinth hermetically sealed until now, and nurture the studies on the author's work and life under a new light."

You wonder, did the man who wanted his papers burned wish for such revelations, or has he cast a curse on the inquisitive Colombian who dug out his "literary" secret?


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Geopolitics

The Trumpian Virus Undermining Democracy Is Now Spreading Through South America

Taking inspiration from events in the United States over the past four years, rejection of election results and established state institutions is on the rise in Latin America.

Two supporters of far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro dressed in Brazilian flags during a demonstration in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.

Bolsonaro supporters dressed in national colours with flags in a demonstration in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, on November 4, 2022.

Ivan Abreu / ZUMA
Carlos Ruckauf*

-Analysis-

BUENOS AIRES — South Africa's Nelson Mandela used to say it was "so easy to break down and destroy. The heroes are those who make peace and build."

Intolerance toward those who think differently, even inside the same political space, is corroding the bases of representative democracy, which is the only system we know that allows us to live and grow in freedom, in spite of its flaws.

Recent events in South America and elsewhere are precisely alerting us to that danger. The most explosive example was in Brazil, where a crowd of thousands managed to storm key institutional premises like the presidential palace, parliament and the Supreme Court.

In Peru, the country's Marxist (now former) president, Pedro Castillo, sought to use the armed and security forces to shut down parliament and halt the Supreme Court and state prosecutors from investigating corruption allegations against him.

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