One of the numerous short stories written by Franz Kafka is “A Hunger Artist”. It explores the life of an extinct professional, an “artist”, who earns his living by simply starving for a certain period.
This was highly popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. However, this story, like many of Kafka’s other stories, is seen as an allegory, with its true meaning transcending the superficial.
The story, narrated in the third person and coupled with retrospective narration, zooms into the protagonist after brief windows of describing the audience, their eagerness, and actions which surround the cage in which the hunger artist is housed.
However, controversy seems to stalk him, as no one in the audience believes that he fasts for the entire length of time professed. Three butchers are chosen to ensure it is not broken, although this is seen as a mere formality. The true niggling irritation is when few of the townspeople watch over him overnight, not trusting him at all. This only enrages him as he attaches much dignity to his profession, and has no intention of betraying his fast. This misunderstanding of the hunger artist is a motif that is present throughout the short span of the story.
Incidences through the story depict society slowly marginalizing him, and inwardly treating him with the utmost disdain. He is also irritated by the fact that his impresario (manager, in today’s terms) chooses to switch towns after forty days of fasting, after which public interest wanes. He has the constant urge to break his own record, and believes he is the most prolific of all hunger artists, with his emaciated, odious (to the public eye) body being a testimony of this.
Years pass, and popularity of his art diminishes. The hunger artist chooses to join a circus, and they give him a desolate spot, where he goes largely unnoticed, which continues even when he is breathing his last breaths.
This fable traverses across time simply because the themes of alienation, emasculation by society, and undermining professionals due to their being much more than average, are still present, and will be through time immemorial. This can also be seen as an account of Kafka’s life himself, as he too was distanced from society, was sharply self-critical of his work, and being as he was, was misunderstood by society.
The brevity, the incisiveness of Kafka’s prose also comes across as striking, and different from purple prose seen commonly nowadays, although the varied vocabulary may make many people think otherwise. This goes well with the absurdist style which haunts most of his works. It is quite ironic too, that a writer addressing problems pertinent to even him, and the reality of the world, uses such fantastic settings, though this could be Kafka’s intention.
Allegorical tales such as these do strike the imagination, and set the mind ticking. Since this directly addresses a societal problem, which is present, but obscured due to the existence of others, this story throws light on the issue.
It can also be a starting point for an indepth reading of Kafka’s works, which do require a lot of insight, and this story can provide the basis.
“A Hunger Artist” is another piece of fiction highlighting Kafka’s genius, and has the ability to bring about these themes mirroring many people’s lives. Although there have been myriad opinions and interpretations divulged, due to the subjective nature of literature, all that can be objectively said is that it is a work of fiction paralleled by few, if none.
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