Board games
The long lost, recently re-discovered, fourth novel from Franz Kafka.
It is not generally known but at the time of his death Franz Kafka was working on a new novel which would make “The Trial” and “The Castle” look like descriptions of rational functioning societies based on truth and honesty and transparency and decency. It was to be called “The Board”. I found a copy of the manuscript while searching on the internet for a first edition of “Little Dorrit”. Not so much a “first” edition of “The Board”, since it was never published, more a kind of “minus one” edition I suppose, an irrational number.

The Board
Our story [wrote Kafka] begins in a small happy village in which a number of families had long specialised in different occupations – farming, shoe-making, carpentry, mining, inn-keeping, tailoring, potters, blacksmiths, gardeners, with the products of those occupations being exchanged through small shops or directly with each other. They managed themselves quite happily. If there were currently plenty of shoes for all then the shoe-makers might help on the farm; the potters, being ahead in pot making, might help dig up some ore from the mine, and so on. When there was excess to their needs they sold to neighbouring towns and villages to earn money to get things they couldn’t provide for themselves.

Their society was much admired in the neighbouring towns, and it basically ran itself. There was a person called The Facilitator (if asked what he did he would say, in his quiet way, “Oh, nothing much, I’m no good at anything, so I just facilitate”), but he had so little to do that he had started up an orchestra, and they played to entertain the people. Mostly his job consisted of organising supplies (clay for the potters, wood for the carpenters, grapes for the innkeepers) to get where they were needed on time, and organising sales to the other villages. Otherwise his role was just to encourage the workers (he did in fact have no skills himself) “What a great pair of shoes, show me how you make that toe part” he would say, as he wandered around the village, or “Just look at the apples on that tree, how do you do it?” or “Excellent table, what is in that polish, do you think you could make one for me some time?” and so on. People felt happier, and worked a little harder after he had gone past, and they were grateful he was organising supplies, so they didn’t have to.

This happy state of affairs lasted for many years, might have lasted for ever, except that suddenly, one day, with a smile on his face, admiring a very nice pot one of the potters had given him, he dropped dead.

“What do we do now?” asked the villagers of each other, after the funeral and a jolly fine wake was over. “Where will we get another Facilitator?” Well it was a problem, because everyone in the village was happily occupied doing and making things, they all had needed skills, and none of them had the time or inclination to facilitate. “I hear there is a chap in the next village that might do”, said one, who had recently been there to deliver some farm implements. “They say he is a very nice fellow, easy going, friendly. Can’t actually do anything himself of course, but a jolly good fellow.” “Sounds ideal” said the others, and so it was agreed.

For the next week or so things seemed to go on as they had ever done. The only puzzling thing to the villagers was that the new Facilitator seemed to have absolutely no interest in what they did. He didn’t wander around admiring their apples and shoes, but stayed in his house, and seemed, as best they could tell, to spend all the time on the phone. When one of the villagers asked him if he didn’t want to stroll around the village, get to know people and their work he said he thought you “could overdo that kind of thing”.

After about a week the villagers awoke one morning to the sound of a lot of hammering and wheels turning and men cursing. They went out to the village green and discovered their facilitator with another man, a stranger, and a number of other strangers who were building a strange structure. It was pure shiny white with very smooth sides and no windows, just a small door opening at the base, and it was going up rapidly. It looked a bit, as one villager, more travelled than most, who had been to Purvis Bay, observed, like a lighthouse without a light. One of the villagers said to the Facilitator “What is this thing, and what’s it made of?” He turned to the man beside him and said, “What’s this made of Fred? It’s ebony, isn’t it? What? Oh, yes, ivory, that’s right. And it’s for the Board.” “It’s made from boards?” asked the villager, not having heard the term used in any other way before.

“No, it’s for The Board. They are the people who run this district, all the other villages, and now they will be running this one too.”

“Why have we never heard of them before?”

“Well the former Facilitator, I hate to say, was really poor at his job, very poor indeed. He refused to discuss things with the Board or have anything to do with it. I’m pleased to say that I have now been able to rectify this terrible situation.”

Work went on all day and into the night, as the villagers went to bed to the continuing sound of hammers. Then the noise stopped, and they all went gratefully to sleep, although one later half awoke, thinking she had heard the sound of wheels on the cobbled streets, and then, was that the sound of a door slamming? But soon all was quiet and she too went back to sleep.

In the morning the villagers came out to find the tall shining white monument completed. Like the Purvis Bay lighthouse it had a kind of enlarged area at the top, but there were no windows or a light, just a large knob on top of the pure white shaft. At the very bottom of the shaft was a very strong door with a combination lock, like the steel door of a bank safe, and in front of the door, almost as if on guard (though what could he be guarding?) was The Facilitator.

“Good day to you Mr Facilitator, what is happening here, what are you doing?”

“Well, one of the things that is happening is that my title has changed, I am now The Communicator. And I am here waiting for a call from above, ready to instantly communicate the demands of the Board to the village. And of course, communicate any appropriate communications from the village, should such ever arise, to The Board, when it is deemed appropriate for them to receive such communications. So “The Communicator”.”

“But Mr F…, err, Mr Communicator, what is this Board? Who are they? Where did they come from? What is their job?”

“They don’t have a job, silly, The Board members are far above such ordinary concepts as “jobs”. Jobs are for poor people. People who need “qualifications”, “skills”, “experience”, all such nineteenth century ideas. The Board has gone beyond such primitive concepts to a pure realm where the fewer qualifications you have the more qualified you are to be a Board member. And who are they? Well, originally, a long time ago, the King in far off Kingswood, asked some people to run the City Library for him. Just ordinary people, he wanted, no librarians, who would have a vested interest, just ordinary people who might have once used a library. And he gave them some instructions to let them operate – they were to “Buy books, shelves, rubber stamps; establish a rule for overdue books; have signs made telling users to be quiet; and to do any other thing necessary to achieve their aims.”

“So, what are they doing here? I don’t see that …”

“Didn’t you hear what I said ‘do any other thing necessary to achieve their aims’? The leader of Board, called, simply “The Leader” realised immediately that this made them the most powerful institution in the whole kingdom. They could do anything. Anything at all. The King had said so. No one could stop them doing anything they wanted, and there were no rules that applied to them.”

“But surely that clause just applies to running the Library. The King couldn’t think of everything they might need to do, and there wasn’t enough space on the parchment to include buying stickers for books, selling old books, repairing library chairs and so on, so he just added a bit to cover those things.”

“If you want my advice I wouldn’t say that ever again in case The Leader hears you. And they will. That clause lets them do anything, and they do, they are now running all the villages between here and Kingswood, and by the end of the year they will certainly be running all the villages in the country, and even Kingswood itself before long. Anyway, that’s enough questions, The Leader doesn’t like people wasting time with questions when they should be working. Go back to your homes and businesses, and I will communicate the first Board demands to you as soon as they are made.”

So the villagers went back to work as usual, and almost forgot about The Board. The Communicator stayed at the door, and in fact one of the carpenters had built him a new home there so he wouldn’t have to ever be too far away in case The Board wanted him. One day the villagers noticed that some new work was going on, and a couple of new people were there talking to the Communicator. One villager went over curiously.

“Excuse me, who are your friends? Are they Board members?”

“Oh no you foolish little man, of course not. Ordinary people can’t SEE Board members. No this is the Assistant Communicator, and the Deputy Assistant Communicator. They have come from the next village to help me with my tasks, too much for one person. I have a work load that would kill an ox, not that my door isn’t always open of course” he said, pointing at the closed door of his new house.

That night, at the village inn, the villagers found a couple of new drinkers were present, people they didn’t know. Big chaps they were, with big biceps and big tattoos on the biceps. Seemed to have plenty of money and plenty of attitude. After a while the Innkeeper said to them “Well gentlemen, haven’t seen you before, welcome to our village. Will you be here for long?”

“Dunno” said the biggest of the two big chaps “depends on how long the Board needs us for. I’m Butch, first cousin of The Leader, and Biff here is the second cousin. We’re here to keep an eye on things. Keep order.”

The Innkeeper filled their glasses and retreated down the bar, wiping its top as he went in what he hoped was an orderly kind of a way. The way Butch said “keep an eye on things” was kind of, well, menacing, and the Innkeeper wasn’t a big man.

The next day The Communicator made an announcement over a newly installed loudspeaker “All villagers must come to the village square for some special announcements, by order of The Board”. So the crowd gathered. Up the front was The Communicator with his two assistants. Off to one side, with a clear view of everyone in the crowd, stood Butch and Biff, cracking knuckles and scowling.

“These are the first decisions from The Board for this village” said The Communicator “we are all honoured that they have taken a little time to discuss our affairs and give us the benefit of their great wisdom. The Board members are the smartest people in the universe, and we are very lucky to have them here at last to take care of us. So here is what they decided this morning. First there has been too much time wasted chatting, in future if you need to communicate with someone else in the village you need to make a written application a week in advance. Sorry, 2 weeks. Second, the Inn will give free beer to all visitors, and add whisky chasers for people whose names start with B (Butch gave Biff the thumbs up sign). Third, there is to be no more pottery, costs too much. Fourth in future the carpenter will only be doing work for me and my assistants and of course The Board, as required. Fifth the farm is to use no more fertiliser, the smell is wafting up to the top of the tower and spoiling the Board’s lunch. Finally there is to be no more bartering of goods. The Board will be issuing special money for use in the village, and ten percent …” The Communicator stopped for a moment and consulted with his two assistants. He continued “20 % of all transactions will go to the Board. Any questions?”

There was a stunned silence in the crowd. Finally the shoemaker put up his hand and said “Why didn’t the Board ask us about this, there has been some misunderstanding. First if we can’t talk …”. The Communicator held up his hand, and the two Bs edged forward a little to try to see who had spoken. The Communicator said “There has been some misunderstanding. I wasn’t asking for discussion about this, just whether there were any questions about implementing the decisions. If there are not then that concludes our business.” The crowd hurried away, silently, not wanting to speak while in hearing of the Communicator. That night someone broke into the home of the shoemaker and beat him up so badly that he had to be taken to the hospital. His neighbour said she though she saw two large shadows moving away and the sound of cracking knuckles but couldn’t be sure. The next day she had all her food supplies removed, as a fine for speaking without permission.

The tailor, who needed to talk to one of his customers to confirm the measurements and colour of a suit, went to the Communicator to ask about a permit to speak to him. “Don’t talk to me” said The Communicator, “you must see my Deputy Assistant.” So the tailor went to the Deputy Assistant Communicator, and asked about making application to speak to his client. The DAC laughed “Good heavens” he said “What are you thinking? You must fill in a form for me.” “Will that get me permission to speak?” “Oh you foolish fellow, of course not. You fill in this form which is an application to the Assistant Communicator, to get you a form which you can use to ask The Communicator for a form to submit to The Board”. “How long will that all take?” “Well, hard to say. My in-tray is overflowing of course, and I know the Assistant’s in-tray is too. And the Communicator’s door is always open, except when it’s closed, so he is just busy all day every day. Couldn’t promise you anything in less than a month”. “Still” said the tailor “As long as I can definitely get approval in a month”. The DAC laughed again. “Approval in a month? Where have you been? The Communicator may or may not decide to even give your submission to The Board, he may just throw it in the bin, depending on his mood. And even if he gives it to The Leader, they may throw it in the bin without letting the rest of the Board see it. I wouldn’t expect any sort of a response, even a ‘No’, in less than, oh, say 3 months. And there may, as I said, be no response at all.” “But I will go broke” said the tailor “I can’t work like this”. “Try sign language” said the DAC “or perhaps writing on a blackboard. There is always a way, and we can’t afford any more wasted time on chatter in the village”.

The farmer happened to be standing near by, waiting his turn to speak to the DAC. After hearing the answer he walked away with the tailor and said “This is madness, these people are idiots, we can’t live like this. How can I grow food without fertiliser?” That afternoon he spread some more fertiliser on his fields, and that night he had a visit from, you guessed it, Butch and Biff, who beat him up and told him he would get the same again if he dared to speak to people without permission and put out more of that foul smelling manure. The next day, bruised and bandaged, he spread some more manure, calling out a cheerful “Good Morning” to his neighbour as he did. That night, as they beat him up again, Butch said “This hurts us more than it hurts you, you know” “Good” said the farmer, and got some extra kicks for his joke.

Meanwhile another villager had pushed a note under the door of the tower in the middle of the night while The Communicator, his door shut, was asleep. It pleaded with the Board to talk to the villagers, find out the truth about what was happening, talk to experts about farming and making suits and throwing pots. In the morning The Communicator found the note and dropped it in the bin. Meanwhile the farmer and tailor and innkeeper, in desperation, had written to the king. The potters had phoned the national newspaper in Kingswood and arranged to talk to a reporter.

The next day there was another very loud announcement on the loudspeaker – “All villagers must come to the village square now”. When they got there the scene was as before. The Communicator was very very angry and began communicating that anger immediately – “The potters have contacted a newspaper – just as well Butch had the line tapped. Contact with the media is not permitted, the only person who is permitted to speak to the Press is me. The head of the family, Harry, has been put in gaol and will stay there for some time. What is worse these other three people have written to the King – as usual, such letters are returned to me, unopened. No one is permitted to contact the King except The Leader, and these three people will also spend time in gaol.”

When the farmer got out of gaol some weeks later he had a lot of work to do on his neglected farm. But things kept going wrong. He rang his manure supplier, only to be told that someone had cancelled his order and there was no more available. When he got his tractor out to spray weeds there was sugar in the fuel tank. The tanker that collected his milk had its tyres slashed. His fences were cut. Often Butch and Biff would drive past his farm along Pitt Street and scream obscenities at him as he worked in the fields on hot days, or tried to repair some wrecked piece of machinery.

Sometimes villagers would hear angry shouting and even screaming from the top of the village tower in the night, and after such screams the farmer would always find even more extreme damage had been done to his farm. His shed blew over in the wind when the foundations were undermined. His haystack caught fire and was only saved in the nick of time when some neighbours helped him put out the fire before too much was lost. He had been puzzled about how the saboteurs seemed to know when he was about to do something every time, but then he had caught a flash of field glasses one day and seen the village ratcatcher ( a man who wore clothes made from the skins of his prey and was reputed to eat the rest) watching him from behind a hedge. Someone had whispered to him out of the corner of his mouth one day as they passed in the lane that the ratcatcher was some kind of relative of one of the Board members, third cousin or something.

After some weeks of this there was another of those loudspeaker announcements. But this time the villagers were surprised to see only the AC and the DAC there, no Communicator. The AC explained that his boss was sick, and that the Leader was very angry. He read out a Board message as follows. “Your dear Communicator is ill, has worn himself down trying to deal with the vicious and recalcitrant behaviour of the farmer who refuses to obey the rules. The farmer will be punished for this. And a friend of a Board member has cancer, treatment isn’t working, that evil farmer not only causes cancer but interferes with the cure. He must be punished for this too”. And indeed the farmer quickly found himself back in gaol, solitary confinement but with Biff for company occasionally. By the time he was released he was very ill indeed, with broken bones not mending, a heart condition, and severe weight loss. The Communicator, he discovered, had been back on the job for some time.

But the farmer kept working, it was his job to feed the people and feed the people he would. His farm hands were frightened off after being confronted in the Inn by Butch and Biff one night. His farm manager received death threats and left in a hurry. Contractors would no longer even come down his road after a series of accidents to equipment.

But he persisted, and one fine day saw him harvest his grain singlehandedly (after replacing the bent axle on the harvester). He personally drove the truck to the grain silo and left it, heaving a sigh of relief, with the manager. What he didn’t see, fortunately, as he headed home, were the Communicator and his two offsiders presenting the manager with a requisition for all the farmer’s wheat, and taking it off themselves to sell in Kingswood. “How will the farmer get his money?” called the manager, as the trio drove off with the grain. “What money?” came the jolly reply.

The next day the farmer was found dead, an odd smell of burnt almonds coming from his water tank. An accident, ruled the coroner sent by The Board, must have been poisoning rats or something.

Over the next few years the village population shrank and shrank. There was little food, the tradesmen couldn’t do their business properly, the Inn had lost so much money it had closed, the farm was a wasteland. Houses and shops were abandoned, a few stray dogs roamed the streets. The once happy prosperous village was just a ghost town. The Communicator hadn’t been seen for a while, or his assistants, but the few remaining villagers heard that he had been promoted to be the Communicator in a big town in another part of the country. Nor had there been any more decisions from the tower, which seemed to stand empty, though the villagers were too scared to check, just in case. There were announcements about them in the press from time to time though. Apparently the King was so pleased with their work that they had all been awarded knighthoods and had been given major jobs in the court.

The farmer however was buried in an unmarked grave on what had once been a farm. Even the evidence that it had been a farm and that he had once owned it was gone, one of the former Assistant Communicators (both had been promoted to be Communicators in other villages) having removed the farm sign and name on the gate when he went, as a souvenir.

And that is where the manuscript ends. Oh Franz had left a lot of gaps where he had obviously intended to add more detail to the framework he had established, but he never did. I think he decided the story was too grim, too depressing, too fantastic, people would never believe it. Better to have his legacy remain as “The Trial” and “The Castle”, those light, happy, optimistic little fables that raised people’s spirits. No one would want to read “The Board”. And he was right.

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