Kafka’s stories often deal with the power that either drives man beyond himself into the spiritual sphere or pulls him back into a primitive, this-worldly realm. (Compare the “assault from above” and the “assault from below” in “A Hunger Artist.”) In several of his stories, he uses the symbol of the hunt to illustrate that wherever there is life there is also persecution and fighting. Nobody can escape it. A man may allow himself, it is true, to be driven in one direction by the hunt (as does the chief dog, for instance, in “Investigations of a Dog”), but having gone as far as he can, he will have to allow the hunt to drive him in the opposite direction and take him back if he wants to survive. Man remains the battleground of opposing forces, and this is why he roams the vague realms of life and death without being firmly anchored in either.
Few of Kafka’s stories convey such a dense atmosphere of vagueness, remoteness, and dreamlike absurdity. This absurdity is intensified by the highly realistic description of Riva and the factual setting of the opening paragraphs, accenting a total lack of any common frame of reference between the townspeople of — Riva and the newcomer. A touch of uncertainty and mysteriousness hovers over the story: the death ship glides into the harbor “as if” borne by “invisible means”; a man who is “probably dead” was “apparently” lying on a bier. Yet there can be no doubt about the “realness” of the story. To make this clear, Kafka has the hunter Gracchus remind us that, by contrast to the “real” world, “aboard ship, one is often victimized by stupid imaginations.” In other words, the events taking place in Riva are not imagined by its inhabitants or by the hunter. In sober diction and short punctuated sentences, Kafka enumerates facts which, because of their almost meticulous factuality, stand in eerie contrast to the incredible occurrence itself.
Yet if the stranger’s arrival is incredible, nobody really troubles about him or pays the least bit of attention to him. “Without any mark of surprise,” the Burgomaster tells the visitor his name and profession, and the stranger’s reply is equally calm. This contrast does not merely increase the impact of the story, but it also carries its own logic, in the sense that it reflects the impossibility of penetrating the story rationally.
It is of some interest that in a fragment belonging to the story, Kafka argues that Gracchus may be seen as an interpreter between earlier generations and those living today; he can transcend all limits of time and space ordinarily imposed upon a human being. Gracchus is capable of doing so because, as a dead person who is nevertheless “alive” in a certain sense, he has universal knowledge of everything that was and is. Comprised of both life and death during his travels in “earthly waters,” Gracchus represents the totality of being, the universal elements of existence of all forms of being. This view is the only possible starting point for a logical explanation of how the hunter knows (or remembers) the Burgomaster’s name. According to this explanation, the Burgomaster also participates in the timeless, universal quality of the hunter.
Who is the hunter Gracchus? Where is he coming from? We hear that he is “dead,” and yet “in a certain sense” also alive. For hundreds of years he has sailed “earthly waters” ever since the day he fell into a ravine hunting chamois in the Black Forest. His barge was to take him to the realm of the dead, but it got off its course and has been aimlessly roaming the shadowy regions between life and death ever since.
While they know each other’s names, the hunter and the Burgomaster know nothing of their respective worlds. Each is anxious to find out something but neither succeeds: the Burgomaster cannot even furnish the stranger with some desperately needed information about the town of Riva. This is, of course, a typical situation in a Kafka story: a complete lack of communication between people, or between worlds. The question arises: which world does the hunter represent? It is tempting to believe that the regions he comes from are a higher realm of reality, as opposed to the empirical world of Riva (which Kafka visited with his friend Brod in 1909). Once we analyze the hunter’s world, however, it becomes clear that his world cannot be put into any fixed category. In fact, it is the most striking characteristic of the story of the hunter Gracchus that he no longer belongs anywhere, neither in a metaphysical realm nor in an empirical one. This was not always the case: he had been happy as a hunter, following his calling. He was happy even after he bled to death. Only long afterward did his mishap throw him into this predicament of total estrangement from any sense of belonging. We hear that it all began with a “wrong turn of the wheel” of his pilot and are immediately reminded of the “false alarm of the night bell once answered — it cannot be made good” again, the tragic insight of the country doctor doomed to roam through the snowy wastes.
Alienated and excluded from this world and the one beyond, the hunter Gracchus is at home everywhere and nowhere. Asked by the Burgomaster if he is not part of the “other world,” he replies that he “is forever on the long staircase leading up to it.” Typical of so many of Kafka’s stories, this one begins with the hero’s breaking away from a limited but clearly defined order. He once enjoyed living in this world, governed by a fixed set of rules, where people referred to him as “the great hunter.” Now he who wanted nothing more than to live in the mountains must travel through all the lands of the earth and find no rest, even among the dead. All he knows is that no matter how hard he strives toward oblivion, he keeps regaining consciousness; he remains still “stranded forlornly in some earthly sea or other.” The possibility of salvation does not exist, even under the best possible circumstances, because there is no way of communicating. Hence his frightening insight; to care is every bit as futile as not to care and “the thought of helping me is an illness.”
As he so often does in his stories, Kafka drew on his own situation as a “hunter” here. The name Gracchus is derived from the Latin graculus, which means “raven,” as does Kafka’s name in Czech. Kafka repeatedly referred to himself as a “strange bird, aimlessly sailing about humans.” Once upon a time it was possible to determine man’s position in this world and the next one. As Gracchus puts it, commenting on his own death: “I can still recall happily stretching out on this pallet for the first time.” Now he circles back and forth between spheres, and his apparently universal view of things is really that of Kafka, exploring all possible modes of thinking and living, dipping into each and staying with none.
As a result, the hunter Kafka was incapable of understanding the fixed order of earthly existence. He explained this failure in terms of a sudden lack of orientation, a distraction, “a wrong turn of the wheel.” In his diary he referred to it as “self-forgetfulness,” a lack of concentration, a “fatigue” which caused him to step out of the flow of time.
This lack of orientation and subsequent isolation, however, which permeates Gracchus’ (Kafka’s) life is not to be seen as something which one can explain autobiographically or psychoanalytically, as has too often been done in connection with Kafka’s conflict with his father. The experience of such fundamental disorientation and isolation is rather the precondition for Kafka’s uncompromising prodding into the complexities of human experience. That this human experience retreats even before his literary genius and permits only approximations is to be expected: language is by definition self-restrictive. What we term Gracchus’ “totality of being” or his “transcendence of time and distance,” for instance, we have therefore put in these terms simply because it defies any adequate description. This does not mean that “totality” and “transcendence” do not exist; the whole story illustrates that they do indeed exist. It is simply that to force Kafka’s attempts to penetrate to the very core of the mystery of existence into a set of ready-made definitions would be tantamount to violating his intentions.
In this context, it is important to recall that Kafka himself has done everything, both in his stories and his commentaries on them, to qualify and even retract so-called clear-cut interpretations which he may have advanced or which others may have read into his writing. Naturally his stories are also interpretations and reflections, giving expression to manifold social, psychological, biographical, philosophical, and religious phenomena. But only up to a point. If interpreting were all he had had in mind, there would have been no need for him to leave his readers wondering about the answers to so many questions. The paradoxes and absurdities that abound in his works are the logical, because inevitable, expression of the fact that “reality” or “truth” on their highest level are indeed paradoxical and absurd when defined by our own limited comprehension.