A translation of this story’s title, which may be rendered as “in the penal colony,” seems inappropriately mild. And not only because some people believe the word “colony” to have been derived from this man’s name. It turns out that a colony is only one of the Romans’ many legacies:
A colony is the proper term for a public settlement of Roman citizens in a hostile or newly conquered country. Here, retaining their Roman citizenship, they received lands and acted as a garrison, being mostly formed of veteran soldiers who had served their time; hence it was applied to the place so occupied, or to towns which were raised to the same rank and privileges (OED).
Colonies have assumed another, very distinct meaning in the years since the fall of Rome. They have come to signify hamlets or isolated settlements for people united in a joint purpose. That purpose may be practically anything from religion to drug use to nudity. In other words, what was once repayment to retired soldiers for years of killing and mayhem is now often the only place where persecuted, ostracized or downright bizarre minorities may enjoy the freedoms they espouse. A penal colony, then, would be a place where people believe in punishment, in both inflicting and receiving it, although probably not in equal measure. Those who rule the colony must be willing to act as examples for those who do not meet the specifications of the enterprise. Maintaining the compound of the Germanic word for punishment and the Latinate borrowing superimposes ideas as alien as the cultures of subjugator and subjugated. What is more, any derivative of “penalize,” despite its implications, remains soft and almost schoolmaster−like, and in the modern day reminds many of cheating and roughhousing millionaires castigated by sports officials for not playing by the rules. The hellhole in this tale is about pain, gruesome and infinite pain, and, to be frank, little else.
On an island quite removed from the influence of “European views,” a Traveler ("neither a citizen of the penal colony, nor of the state to which it belonged") is taken by an Officer to inspect a machine. The machine is a mechanical wonder, the pride and joy of the colony’s Former Commander and now of his last adherent, the Officer. So unpopular were the methods of this erstwhile taskmaster that his modest grave is now concealed underneath a teahouse table with the inscription:
Here lies the Former Commander. His followers, who may not be named, dug him this grave and above it placed this gravestone. It has been foretold that after a certain number of years the Commander will rise from the grave and lead his followers to recapture the colony. Wait and see!
Originality notwithstanding, a better epitaph for the Devil could probably not be written. The contraption which this Commander devises also suggests unrepentant evil in the form of justice. Justice, mind you, under the auspices of a harrow that takes twelve hours to kill. The Traveler is presented with these facts and then invited to witness the judgment in action.
Much has been made in Kafka criticism of the diabolic nature of the torture rack. There are numerous parallels to modern torture devices, although the Middle Ages, owing in no small part to their inefficiencies and paucity of universal human rights concepts, were far ahead of today’s monsters. A man in chains, “an obtuse, wide−mouthed person with a shabby face and hair” who looked “so loyal, like a dog,” has been sentenced for “disobeying and offending a superior.” The Officer relates the exact circumstances of the crime:
This morning a Captain reported that this man, who was assigned to him as a servant and sleeps in front of his door, was asleep on the job. His duty was to stand and salute in front of the Captain's door at the stroke of each hour. Doubtless no hard task, yet a necessary one as he has the obligation of being fresh for both service and surveillance. Last night, the Captain wanted to check whether he was fulfilling his duty. He opened the door at two o'clock sharp and found the man curled up in a ball. The Captain retrieved his riding crop and hit him in the face. Instead of getting up and asking for forgiveness, the man grabbed his master by the legs, shook him, and said: 'Lose the crop or I'll eat you whole.'
What hope is there in a world like this? Should we then be surprised to learn that the Condemned knows neither of his punishment nor that he is to be punished at all? All this will become clear in the course of twelve hours, his last half−day in this life. For twelve hours the harrow will cut into his naked body and write "with many a flourish" the exact commandment of the island that he has violated. Only then, says the Officer, does the extent of his crime dawn on him and, in a way, grant him redemption.
Yes, this looks, sounds and feels like an allegory, but all great art is an allegory for itself. Feeble critical attempts have been made to compare the writing on the back of "hundreds of men" who endured unfathomable pain for varying degrees of insolence to the agony of devoting oneself to letters. This attempt and many others that seek simple ciphers to machinations of genius may smirk at a detail or two, especially at the endless zeal of the Officer that cannot be human. Yet he is very human. He believes that his justice is divine and that only he may mete it out. He even goes so far as to mistake himself for his old Commander in speech, so strong is his commitment to righteousness and discipline. And on this modern−day Devil's Island, he is the last of his kind.