Vor dem Gesetz ("Before the Law")

Before the Law stands a doorkeeper. To this doorkeeper comes a man from the country, asking for entrance to the Law. But the doorkeeper says that he cannot grant the man entry at this moment. The man thinks it over and asks if he might be able to come in later. “It’s possible,” says the doorkeeper, “but not now.” Given that the door to the law stands open, as always, and the doorkeeper stands beside it, the man bends over a bit to see through it, to the inside. As the doorkeeper notices this he laughs, and says: “If it tempts you so much, go ahead and try to get in, despite my prohibition. Know this, though: I’m powerful. And I’m only the lowest of the doorkeepers. But from room to room stand doorkeepers, each more powerful than the last. Just one glimpse of the third and I can’t even handle it myself.” The man from the country had not expected such difficulties; the law should be open to everyone all the time, he thinks. But now, as he looks closer at the doorkeeper in his fur coat, his big pointy nose, his long, thin, black Tartar’s beard, he decides to wait until he gets permission to go in. The doorkeeper gives him a little stool and allows him to sit down by the side of the door. There he sits, for days and years. He makes many attempts to be let in, tires the doorkeeper out with his begging. The doorkeeper often interrogates him a little, asks him about his homeland and other things, but these are indifferent questions, the kind great men ask, and at the end he always says once again that he can’t let him in just yet. The man, who has equipped himself with many things for his journey, hands it all over, no matter how valuable, to bribe the doorkeeper. The doorkeeper takes everything, but he always says: “I’m only taking this so that you don’t feel like you failed to do something.” During these many years the man looks at the doorkeeper almost constantly. He forgets the other doorkeepers, and this one seems to him to be his only obstacle for entry to the Law. He curses his unlucky circumstances, in the early years indiscriminately and loud, and later, as he grows old, just mumbles to himself. He becomes childish, and, given that in his years-long study of the doorkeeper he’s come to know even the fleas in his fur collar, he even asks the fleas to help him persuade the doorkeeper. Finally his eyesight grows weak, and he doesn’t know whether things around him are becoming darker, or his eyes are just deceiving him. But he recognizes an illumination in the darkness, breaking out inextinguishably from the door to the Law. Now he hasn’t got long left to live. Before his death, in his head he collects all the experiences of this entire time into one question, which he has not yet posed to the doorkeeper. He waves him down, given that he can no longer straighten up his body, which has grown stiff. “What do you want to know now?” asks the doorkeeper. “You’re insatiable.” “Everybody strives for the Law,” says the man. “So how does it come to be that in these many years nobody besides me has requested entry?” The doorkeeper recognizes that the man is at his end, and in order to be heard with the man’s fading hearing, shouts: “Nobody else could have been given entry here, because this entrance was assigned only to you. Now I’m going to go and shut it.”

Translation ©2016 by Rebecca Schuman