A Papal Summons bills itself as “a grotesque camp horror story inspired by the works of Franz Kafka and Kobo Abe.” I haven’t read Abe and therefore cannot comment intelligently on that part of the work’s genealogy, but I’ve read quite a bit of Kakfa – and although his work is hardly horror in any traditional sense of the genre, let alone camp, it is easy to discern certain Kafkaesque themes in Bitter Karella’s story. Most obviously, perhaps, there is the soulless bureaucracy that plays a major role in both The Castle and The Trial; a system where meaning is always deferred, never established, and things happen merely because they are supposed to happen. But the Kafka story I was most reminded of was The Great Wall of China (original title: “Beim Bau der Chinesischen Mauer”), or rather a story within that story, in which we hear what would happen if the Emperor ever decided to send a messenger to someone in a distant province. Let me quote the entire passage:
The Emperor—so they say—has sent a message, directly from his death bed, to you alone, his pathetic subject, a tiny shadow which has taken refuge at the furthest distance from the imperial sun. He ordered the herald to kneel down beside his bed and whispered the message into his ear. He thought it was so important that he had the herald repeat it back to him. He confirmed the accuracy of the verbal message by nodding his head. And in front of the entire crowd of those who’ve come to witness his death—all the obstructing walls have been broken down and all the great ones of his empire are standing in a circle on the broad and high soaring flights of stairs—in front of all of them he dispatched his herald. The messenger started off at once, a powerful, tireless man. Sticking one arm out and then another, he makes his way through the crowd. If he runs into resistance, he points to his breast where there is a sign of the sun. So he moves forward easily, unlike anyone else. But the crowd is so huge; its dwelling places are infinite. If there were an open field, how he would fly along, and soon you would hear the marvelous pounding of his fist on your door. But instead of that, how futile are all his efforts. He is still forcing his way through the private rooms of the innermost palace. He will never he win his way through. And if he did manage that, nothing would have been achieved. He would have to fight his way down the steps, and, if he managed to do that, nothing would have been achieved. He would have to stride through the courtyards, and after the courtyards the second palace encircling the first, and, then again, stairs and courtyards, and then, once again, a palace, and so on for thousands of years. And if he finally did burst through the outermost door—but that can never, never happen—the royal capital city, the centre of the world, is still there in front of him, piled high and full of sediment. No one pushes his way through here, certainly not with a message from a dead man. But you sit at your window and dream of that message when evening comes.
In the case of the protagonist of A Papal Summons, the situation is slightly different – the message did reach us and we have managed to come to Rome to meet the pope who sent it. But the six months that have passed might as well have been an eternity, for they turned the summons precisely into a message from a dead man. Within the heart of the bureaucracy, justification and scapegoat for all the horrors that are performed, lies a man who is so close to death that the protagonist cannot perceive any distance at all; and he is artificially kept that way, an absolute emptiness, powerless to make even the smallest change to the world, but turned into a symbol by the innocent faith of the true believer. Like the Emperor in Kafka’s story, the pope must never be allowed to be more than a symbol; for that would disturb the inscrutable machinery of state.
Kaemi wrote a rather critical review of the game, complaining about the litany of horrors that doesn’t do justice to the complexities of the faith and its history, and, worse, seems to paint even those who are the victims of institutions with the same cynical brush:
The entire scene takes the venomous invective that, when aimed at a global institution with a deeply troubled history, feels, if not thoughtful, at least understandable, then just splatters it over everyone, powerful and powerless, with the very unfortunate implication that everyone, sex worker and true believer, is complicit in their abuse, which surely wasn’t intended?
I don’t exactly disagree with this. There’s a lot to like about A Papal Summons in terms of structure and inventiveness, and I read through it with rapt attention. But if the purpose of the game was to develop a criticism of the Catholic Church, then a more thoughtful and discerning approach would have been required. If the purpose was merely to revel in the horrifying sights and sounds, what kaemi identifies as a carnival ride of religious terror, then it would have been good to leave out the more human characters and go full institutional horror. And yet – the way I read the game, all the horror, in its banality, in its cynicism, in its universality, is there for what may be called an ethical pay-off: our recognition of the Pope, the one who is supposed to explain things to us and absolve us, as the powerless, the voiceless, the one to be pitied.
The dying Emperor in Kafka’s story, the dying pope in A Papal Summons; these parental figures whose attention and love we, children, desire more than anything else; are they not revealed as people who, powerless to bestow any gift unto us, actually need our love and attention? But of course we are equally powerless to bestow a gift unto them.
“The pope has nothing to say.” It is possible to read this final sentence as a deeply cynical statement about institutional religion in general or the Catholic Church in particular. And perhaps it is meant this way. But I prefer to read it as a statement about the human condition. About the loneliness of death. About the wordlessness of grief. And about the isolation to which we so often condemn ourselves and each other long before physical death comes to claim us. Which would still be rather desperate and hopeless, but which would not be cynical.