‘A Hunger Artist’ was the only short story that Kafka deemed worthy of preservation, though history proved him wrong. The opening plunges the reader deep into the Kafka’s world: “During these last decades the interest in professional fasting has markedly diminished. It used to pay very well to stage such great performances under one’s own management, but today that is quite impossible.” The narrator’s observations are factually true, for public displays of starvation by Giovanni Succi and others were popular sideshows in the 19th Century. One of the great ironists of literature, Kafka turns the caged performer fasting in a freakshow into an artist. The spectators, children among them, initially marvel at his skill, while butchers stand guard to make sure he doesn’t break the rules. However, the public, being fickle, eventually loses interest and the artist joins a traveling circus, where his cage is soon ignored in favor of the animal attractions. The artist nevertheless continues with his craft, breaking all known fasting records while lying in the corner of his cage. He explains, in his defense, that he only fasted because he couldn’t find the food he liked. His corpse is at last discarded and replaced by a well-fed panther which attracts far more attention.
This story is a parable of the artist turning his struggle for spiritual sustenance into a spectacle that feeds the public’s savage hunger for entertainment. Even if he is lucky enough to be noticed for a while, the artist will be misunderstood, and in any case, it is only a matter of time. Walking in Kafka’s footsteps in Prague a few years ago, with exhibits of relentless brutality and renewed authoritarianism only a finger-tap away, I found it nevertheless reassuring to imagine him stepping beside me with his long, loping gait, a gentle ascetic racked by prophetic visions.
First published in 1922. Included in a translation by Willa and Edwin Muir in Franz Kafka: The Complete Stories, Schocken Books, 1988. Available online here