Kafka’s “Great Wall of China”: a Parable of Hegemony and “Nation Building”

[Initially written for and carried in The Nation]

Written in 1917 and first published posthumously in 1931, Franz Kafka’s short story ‘The Great Wall of China’ is an intriguing parable on “nation building”. The story unfolds as a reflection of a mason who had been employed in the construction of the Great Wall – a fortress, as everyone was told, which was meant to hold off the “Northern invaders” – and of how the project had been executed over the years. The narrator, in retrospection, tells us that the wall was always built in piecemeal portions, one labor gang given the feasible task of building a hundred feet of the wall for a five year period. At the end of five years, the labor unit is transferred – and as they are relocated, they would go past other partially built segments of the wall (which, though incomplete) would bear witness to the substance of the laborers’ dedicated effort; and which would kindle them into “believing” in the grand project of which they are a part.

Franz Kafka

Franz Kafka

The wall, which is never completed and built in piecemeal segments, is a metaphor for the “nation building” processes which enslave the energy and the consciousness of the masses. The Mason in the story, therefore, is a representative of the citizen’s psyche, which has been subjected and hegemonically arrested by the state. We are told by the narrator that the foundation of the Great Wall was laid about fifty years prior to the actual program – when the government declared masonry as the most crucial vocation in the country. The narrator records how the lives of the people and their career aspirations changed, where schools of masonry and masons became the lynchpins of society.

The metaphoric value of the masons and masonry are not lost on our contemporary society either – where, through carefully meditated militarization, the state has rearranged the definitions and allowances of civil society. In the closing stages of the North-East Civil War and in its immediate aftermath, the only vocation of mileage was the office of the “patriotic”. The soldier – elevated to Homeric heights as the infallible executioner of the “nation-bound” values of the “nation-loving” government – was set as a default by whom everyone had to prostrate. The narrator of Kafka’s short story makes a very crucial observation: if the state’s prerogative was to wade off the Northern invaders – of whom many grotesque and demonic pictures have been drilled into the populace through school and education – why did they administer the wall’s construction in sections, with gaps everywhere?

Akin to the “nation building” machinery, the wall, too, has meaning only if partially constructed and left inconclusive. For example, if the government’s developmental operations are to end at a particular destination one loses hegemony. The mustering of a “national consciousness” towards a “national goal” is dependent on the painting and promise of colorful dreams and enigmas of sorts. If the project is to cease with the “Southern Highway”, that politician has failed. One has to therefore extend the Southern Highway and have it off shoot into a whole network of highways that will connect all nooks and corners of Lanka in one unceasing channel.

From Pink Floyd's "The Wall"

From Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”

If the “building of the nation” entails the subjugation and contortion of an “enemy”, that enemy is best kept fluid and vague as the “invaders from the North” are in Kafka’s story. Here, the narrator has never seen the invaders infiltrate the gaps of the partly built wall, nor seen them in any concrete form, except for how they are drilled into the collective citizen psyche. Being fluid and faceless, the “enemy” will take the form of the receptacle to which he is put. The “fear of invasion” by the Tamil nation was used to such xenophobic lengths in post-independence Sri Lanka that successive governments could bend the minds of the Sinhala majority with it and use it as a shield to sustain their hegemony and other megalomania. Similarly, a “fear of invasion” by the Muslim identity is now being pumped and fuelled by elements which we can safely assume to have VIP patronage and sanction. What we see here is the bid to keep the “enemy” alive, or – in the context of Kafka’s story – to keep the wall from being completed. If the wall is concluded, the state cannot resort to the threat of that illusive “northern invader” anymore.

Kafka’s ‘The Great Wall of China’ is also preoccupied with the question as to “what is a nation”. In the second half of the narrative – which is popularly known as “A Message from the Emperor” – the narrator focuses on the vagueness and uncertainty of “national” boundaries. Akin to the mainstay of Kafka’s better known fiction, it is a revealing study of the distance between the actual administrative centre and the community’s margins (and vice versa). The message which is sent by the Emperor, the narrator argues, cannot reach the furthest end of the realm – for how could it with the messenger having so much ground to cover and merely his feet to carry him? The point is that the “message” would always be “outdated” or “deferred”. The Emperor, for his part, has technically issued a message; but, as to whether that message will be received by society at all is not guaranteed. For instance, there can be a presidential guarantee of “equality of the constitution” for all persons. But, this is just a “message from the Emperor”. Some parts of the community never receive that message; or, the message is never believed when received for it doesn’t resonate as true.

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