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The Literary Dram

A Spirit in one hand, a Book in the other

The Whisky:  Hammer Headaged 23 years

www.stockspirits.com

The Books:  The Trial and The CastleFranz Kafka

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Given the Bohemian origins of both the whisky and the writer, this match-up could seem predictable. But, of course, being unorthodox, it is anything but.

THE WHISKY

Light gold in the glass. A touch sweet on the nose, notably floral, but with a nut-sharp undercurrent breaking through. Relatively light on the palate, with warm lemony spice. Easy going down. One better than its name. (40.7% abv)

The name is derived from a cast-iron hammer mill, made in 1928 and found on the premises of the Prádlo distillery in communist Czechoslovakia. It’s the type of mill associated with long-standing, traditional Scottish distilleries, used for grinding barley.

The Prádlo distillery, located on the outskirts of the city of Plzeň, 90 kilometres west of Prague, had for decades made a variety of pot distilled spirits. In the late 1970s it decided to make the leap to single malt whisky. Václav Šitner headed the team charged with the task, but restricted from travelling to Scotland, he had only books to guide him. The team used Czech barley and the local pure, clear Bohemian water. When peat from the southern part of the country didn’t work out, they imported peat at great expense from Scotland. The whisky was laid down in barrels made entirely from Czech oak. The first batch went on the market in 1984 and the communist elite had a rather well made alternative to vodka.

Prádlo

Then, just a few years later, the Berlin Wall came crashing down. Suddenly the Velvet Revolution brought democracy to the country. And the whisky was all but forgotten. Twenty years later the Stock Spirits group of the UK were being given a tour of their newly acquired distillery. By the way, they were told, we’ve had some whisky that’s been maturing for a couple of decades now…though it’s probably not very good, by your standards.

Well, nothing to rival Scotland’s finest, but a great deal better than expected. A bit of a marketer’s dream, if a challenge as well. A vintage Czech, communist-era single malt whisky. Rather enigmatic.

THE BOOKS

Rather, well, Kafkaesque.

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The Trial was written in 1914-15, but, like much of Kafka’s writing, was not published until after his death in 1924, at age 40. Often considered the Czech author’s best work, it is one of the most enduring novels of the 20th century, an especially notable accolade, given the fact that he had not finished with it, and likely didn’t intend for it to be published. It remains somewhat rough around the edges, which adds to the mysteries at its core.

It first appeared in English in 1937, translated by Willa and Edwin Muir, a translation that has long been considered flawed. This 1998 translation is by Breon Mitchell, based on Kafka’s original text that only became publicly available a decade earlier. The publisher terms it “as close as possible to the state in which the author left the manuscript.”

The novel’s narrator is Josef K., a bank employee who wakes up one morning to find himself being led to a tribunal and charged with a seemingly serious but unspecified crime. He is left to the mercy of a perplexing court system where logic has no foundation, where each attempt to extricate himself from the injustice of his situation only frustrates him further. The plot carries him through a bizarre maze of events, leaving the reader to construct and reconstruct meaning from them. There is no ultimate satisfaction to be gained, not that Kafka ever intended that there be any. In the end  Josef K. is left a frayed, defeated man, while the reader is often left intrigued but decidedly perplexed.

The Trial has often been viewed as a reflection on arbitrary arrest in a totalitarian state, foreshadowing the rise of Hitler and Stalin. The 21st century reader, under constant surveillance by security cameras, living where government and corporate databanks overflow with what was once considered personal information, finds even more in Kafka to provoke debate.

The Castle is another of his unfinished works, also published posthumously. In fact, the book ends in mid-sentence, and we will never truly know what shape Kafka had in mind for the book, if indeed he was thinking that far ahead when he stopped writing it in 1922.

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Still, even in its incomplete state it is, like The Trial, a fascinating, if consistently perplexing, novel. The protagonist K., like Josef K., has an ultimate goal, one that seems attainable, but which he is never quite able to reach.

K. arrives in a snow-covered village dominated by an alluring hilltop castle. He learns it is home to Count Westwest and his officials who govern the village. Yet only a chosen few villagers have access to it, and Klamm, an elusive figure who occasionally ventures into town, is the closest most of them come to putting a face to their overseers. K arrives with the understanding that he will be employed by the Count as a surveyor, but these hopes are quickly dashed. The forthright K. is not deterred. He sticks doggedly to the notion of gaining access to the castle. Klamm is his best bet.

When K. lures away Klamm’s mistress, Frieda, and makes love to her among the pools of beer on a barroom floor, the possibility of such a meeting, needless to say, is severely compromised. K. fights on, and a story of a kind unfolds, shaped by detours into the lives of a curious cast of characters. Many of whom are surprisingly affecting.

52375026Even though The Castle is often taken as a comment on dehumanized bureaucracy, it is equally a story of alienation, of the need for friendship in a world increasingly void of meaningful human contact.

Kafka once wrote to a friend: “If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for?”

The Trial and The Castle, together with a nod to the Hammer Head, never once led me to question my reading choice.

 

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