Modernist literature is often concerned with modernity as a kind of living death, but perhaps no twentieth-century writer offered a more explicit parable of this fact than Franz Kafka in ‘The Hunter Gracchus’. This story, which exists as a brief six-page tale and an even shorter fragment, was among the posthumous papers which Kafka’s friend and literary executor, Max Brod, published after Kafka’s death in 1924. The story was written in the first half of 1917, and published in Beim Bau der Chinesischen Mauer in 1931.
‘The Hunter Gracchus’: plot summary
The story takes place in the city of Riva in Italy, and begins with a description of this coastal port. Two boys sit on the wall of the harbour, playing with dice, and a man reads a newspaper. All appears to be fairly normal and unremarkable. But as these everyday activities are going on, a boat is pulling into the harbour. One man in a blue shirt climbs off the boat and anchors it to the harbour, while two other men in the boat, wearing black coats, carry a bier – a kind of stretcher usually employed for bearing dead bodies awaiting burial – ashore.
The Burgomaster (i.e., mayor) of Riva, a man named Salvatore, greets the dead man, who speaks to him. He confirms that he is the long-dead hunter named Gracchus, who hunted in the Black Forest in Germany. The Burgomaster tells him that his arrival was announced to him during the night, when a large dove came to him and his wife and told him to receive Gracchus when he arrived in the city.
Gracchus tells him that he has been dead for hundreds of years. He is both dead and, in some sense, alive, his death ship having lost its way while taking him to the next world. Now, his death ship sails the seas of the earth, over and over again. He is, he says, always on the ‘stair’ leading up to the afterlife, but cannot leave behind this world. He spends most of his time at sea, lying on a pallet in his cabin on the boat.
He then reveals how he died: hunting a chamois (a mountain antelope) in the Black Forest, he fell from a precipice and bled to death. He now relives that fatal error over and over in his mind. He blames the boatman for the mistake when taking him to the afterlife, but nobody can help him and nobody would understand his plight.
The Burgomaster asks if Gracchus plans to settle in Riva, but the hunter replies that he will not. His ship is without a rudder and will just be passively tossed along the seas so that he will continue to be borne along the waves until he reaches his next destination.
‘The Hunter Gracchus’: analysis
Known as Der Jäger Gracchus in the original German, ‘The Hunter Gracchus’ can be viewed, in part, as an autobiographical portrait of Kafka himself. Gracchus is close to the Latin graculus and the Italian gracchio, both of which mean ‘jackdaw’, while the Czech for ‘jackdaw’ is kavka, which is very close to Kafka. It’s worth recalling that the protagonists of Kafka’s three most famous works are K., Josef K., and Samsa, the last of which faint echoes – and assonantly chimes with – Kafka. Gracchus can be viewed as another incarnation or avatar of Kafka.
Meanwhile, the name of the Burgomaster, Salvatore, means ‘saviour’. But ironically, the man has no power to save Gracchus, who is condemned to roam the earth in his death ship forever, never finding his final resting place, doomed to relive the tragic mistake which led to his death all those centuries ago. Life, Kafka seems to be suggesting, is an eternal torment in which we are all borne passively along, or perhaps – to borrow from Kafka’s contemporary, F. Scott Fitzgerald – we are all ‘boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’
For some critics, Gracchus is also a variation of the Wandering Jew, condemned to wander the earth and never find peace because he mocked Jesus’ divinity at the Crucifixion. This, we might surmise, is how Kafka viewed himself: as one who feels neither fully at home in the world of the living nor au fait with the life to come.
But perhaps, for Franz Kafka, we should read ‘Franz Kafka’, the metonym for the text, the works of the writer known by that name. Is Kafka’s work, like Gracchus, doomed to be somehow dead (or at least, as was the case of much of it, not published while its author still lived) and yet known and endlessly interpreted by the living? As Gracchus observes to the Burgomaster, ‘nobody will read what I say here.’
Why this sudden mention of reading when the hunter is merely engaged in conversation with the mayor? As is often the case with a Kafkan text, the man known as the Hunter Gracchus is one with the text known as ‘The Hunter Gracchus’, much as Kafka was synonymous with ‘Kafka’, destined not to be ‘read’ or fully understood.
But if Gracchus represents, on some level, Kafka himself, he can also be read as a link between past and present, between Europe’s history and its future. The world in which he lived (as in truly lived) and hunted is gone; we do not know precisely when Kafka’s story is set, whether it is in the present day or some time between Gracchus’ day and now. But we know that Gracchus’ time has passed, and he continues to ‘live’, a shadowy and feeble existence, beyond his time.
In this sense, he is like the Cumaean Sibyl who is summoned at the beginning of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), that modernist poem whose epigraph alludes to the woman who asked to live for as many years as there were grains of sand in her hand, but forgot to ask for eternal youth. Doomed to go on existing, enduring an increasingly faded existence, both the Sibyl and the Hunter Gracchus are symbols, uniting both ancient and modern, past and present, representing the horrors of a death-in-life, or living death.