Franz Kafka's Hunger: A Review

One Story Magazine recently listed their top ten favorite short stories, along with an additional twenty-six stories to flush out the “long list.” Franz Kafka's A Hunger Artist made the long list. This allegory stunned me the first time I read it a few years ago, and it’s still as haunting on the second read. I expect nothing less from Kafka. After all, this is the man who wrote about a man turning into a cockroach.

Kafka’s A Hunger Artist starts:

Over the last few decades, the interest in hunger-artists has suffered a marked decline.

The hunger-artist is a man who fasts while sitting in a cage in front of the townspeople. This is the man’s art form. He willingly starves himself, though his manager makes him break his fast after forty days. Certain “warders” stay at the cage all night to insure he doesn’t sneak food.

This was purely a formality, introduced to ease the minds of the public, because the cognoscenti were well aware that during a period of starvation, no hunger-artist would have eaten the least thing under any circumstances not even under duress; the honour code of his art forbade it.

Still the hunger artist is not satisfied with his art. Despite the honor given during his fasts, the artist is “made still gloomier by virtue of that fact that no one took it seriously.

He would like to fast for more than forty days, but his manager has deemed the audience loses interest at around this time, so it’s best to pull the hunger artist out of the cage and feed him to regain his strength. He performs his forty days of fasting repeatedly over many years, but eventually the audience loses interest in watching the hunger-artist.

Even if he starved to the very best of his ability, and so he did, nothing could rescue him any more, people walked past him.

In the end, the artist is forgotten in his cage for some time. Someone eventually wonders why the empty cage is sitting there. They find the hunger artist near death. In his final words, the hunger-artist states that his starving should not be admired by others and admits he believes he had no choice but to starve.

When the overseer asks, “And why can’t you do anything else?” The hunger-artist replies:

Because I couldn’t find any food I liked. If I had found any, believe me, I would have eaten to my heart’s content, just like you or anyone else.

After the hunger-artist dies, the cage is used to house a panther and spectators crowd around the cage.

My take on this allegory is that Kafka is equating the suffering in starving to the suffering a writer undertakes in crafting a story. The hunger artist wants his work to be pure but is handcuffed by the demands of his manager and the audience. It’s a strange and disturbing metaphor. Kafka “went deep” in his writing, unearthing classic existential truths, trying to find something pure through his work. It’s not hard to imagine Kafka would feel his own stories were not taken as seriously as he would have wished.

A writer suffers for their art, but in the end the written word becomes entertainment for the reader. This reminded me of an interview Raymond Carver gave to the Paris Review. Carver said:

“After all, art is a form of entertainment, yes? For both the maker and the consumer. I mean in a way it’s like shooting billiards or playing cards, or bowling - it’s just a different, and I would say higher, form of amusement. I’m not saying there isn’t spiritual nourishment involved, too. There is, of course. Listening to a Beethoven concerto or spending time in front of a van Gogh painting or reading a poem by Blake can be a profound experience on a scale that playing bridge or bowling a 220 game can never be. Art is all the things art is supposed to be. But art is also a superior amusement. Am I wrong in thinking this?”

Note: In an earlier post, I believe I commented that the short story A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings by Gabriel Garcia Marquez was the only story originally written in a foreign language to be included on the One Story list. I was wrong. A Hunger Artist originally written in German. Another story I’m tracking down, Junot Diaz’s Aguantando, was written in Spanish. So far, I'm unable to find Aguatundo in an English translation.