Returning to Riva: Close Reading a Little-Known Short Story by Franz Kafka

Daniel Heller-Roazen on Fleeting Narrators, Disappearing Text, and "The Hunter Gracchus"

Between 1916 and 1917, a most unusual person makes a small number of fleeting appearances in Franz Kafka’s unpublished papers. One is in a diary entry dated April 6, 1917:

Today, in a little harbour, which apart from fishing boats is normally used only by the two passenger steamers that ply the lake, there lay a strange bark. A clumsy old craft, relatively low and very broad, as filthy as if it had been swamped with bilge water, which still see med to be dripping down the yellowish sides; the masts incomprehensibly tall, the upper third of the main­mast snapped; wrinkled, coarse, yellowish-brown sails stretched in confusion between the yards; patch-work, too weak for the slightest gust.

I gazed in amazement at it for a time, waited for someone to show himself on deck. No one appeared. A workman sat down beside me on the harbour wall. “Whose ship is that?” I asked. ”This is the first time I have seen it.” “It puts in every two or three years,” said the man, “and belongs to the hunter Gracchus.”’

No introduction or commentary accompanies these sentences, which Kafka most likely wrote while in his Prague apartment. They evoke a set of events and conversations that he had begun to record in his notebooks four months earlier.

A longer sequence in the so-called Oktavhefte, dated to December 1916, sets out a similar scene of arrival in fuller detail:

Two boys were sitting on the harbor wall playing dice. On the steps of a monument a man was reading a newspaper in the shadow of the sword-wielding hero. A girl was filling her tub at the fountain. A fruit-seller was lying beside his wares, looking out across the lake. Through the empty window and door openings of a tavern two men could be seen drinking their wine in the depths. Out in front the proprietor was sitting at a table dozing. A bark glided silently into the little harbour, as if borne on water. A man in a blue overall climbed ashore and drew the ropes through the wings. Two other men, wearing dark coats with silver buttons, carried out past the boatman a bier draped with a great tasseled cloth of flower-patterned silk, beneath which there evidently lay a human being. No one on the quay troubled about the newcomers; even when they lowered the bier to wait for the boatman, who was still busy with the ropes, no one approached, no one asked them a question, no one gave them a closer look.

This passage identifies the place of these occurrences. It is the town of Riva, on the northern shores of Lake Garda, where Kafka spent holidays in 1909 and 1913. It is striking that in both the diary entry and this sequence from the notebook, certain human beings are awaited and yet missing from the scene. The author of the text in the diary recalls expecting “someone to show himself on deck” before specifying this general absence: “no one appeared.” In the longer rendition in the notebook, the desertion is developed into a series of sentences about “no one.”

In both texts, however, the observation of absence gives way to the introduction of a name and title belonging to one person. Each time, the reader learns that the hunter Gracchus has arrived—or rather that he has returned in his customary fashion. Men in “dark coats and silver buttons,” in the notebook, proceed to convey the hunter’s bier to a “yellowish two-storied house that rose abruptly on the left close to the water.” Next, they carry it “through the low but gracefully pillared doorway” into a “cool, spacious room at the rear side of the building, from which no other house, but only a bare grey-black wall of rock was to be seen.” The “carriers” light candles at the head of the bier, but it seems that only a play of shades is perceptible. The candles “gave no light to the room; it was just as if shadows had been merely startled from their rest and sent flickering over the walls.”

It is striking that in both the diary entry and this sequence from the notebook, certain human beings are awaited and yet missing from the scene.

At this point in this longer sequence from the Oktavhefte, the “human being” aboard the barge is described. “The cloth covering the bier had been thrown back. Lying there was a man with wildly matted hair and beard, his skin sunburned, rather like a hunter in appearance. He lay there with his eyes closed, motionless and apparently without breathing, yet only the surroundings indicated that perhaps this man was dead.” The seemingly incidental word “perhaps” (vielleicht) soon shows itself to be crucial. A “gentleman” of considerable importance, “an old man with a top-hat and a mourning band,” enters the house, proceeds to the room, and steps up to the bier, laying “his hand on the brow of the recumbent figure.”

He kneels down to pray, indicating to the “carriers” as well as the solitary boatman that he is to be left alone with the body of the unknown “human being.” “At once” the man lying on the bier opens his eyes, turns “his face towards the gentleman with a painful smile,” addressing him: “Who are you?” That question is easily answered; the distinguished gentleman is Salvatore, burgomaster of Riva. Far less certain are the terms with which the reclining hunter himself responds to his interlocutor’s queries: ‘”Are you dead?’ ‘Yes,’ said the hunter, ‘as you see. Many years ago, indeed it must be an uncommonly long time ago, I fell from a rock in the Black Forest—that is in Germany—when I was hunting a chamois. Since then I have been dead.’ ‘But you are alive, too,’ said the burgomaster. ‘To some extent,’ said the hunter, ‘to some extent I am alive too.”‘

Undoubtedly deceased and yet also “to some extent” (gewisser­maßen) alive, the hunter Gracchus has been forced to become a traveler. “My death boat went off course,” he avows. “A wrong turn of the wheel, a moment’s absence of mind on the part of the helmsman, the distraction of my lovely native country, I cannot tell what it was; I only know this, that I remained on earth and that ever since my boat has been sailing.” Gracchus is, in his words, “forever on the great stairway” to the other world. “On that infinitely wide and open stairway I clamber about, sometimes up, sometimes down, sometimes on the right, sometimes on the left, always in motion. But when I soar up with a supreme effort and can already see the gate shining above me, I wake up on my old boat, still forlornly stranded in some earthly sea.” To the burgomaster’s pointed and far from uninterested question as to whether the hunter now means to take up residence in his lakeside city, Gracchus, making light of such a possibility, offers few assurances. “‘Now have you a mind to stay here in Riva with us?’ ‘I have no mind,’ said the hunter with a smile, and to excuse the jest he laid his hand on the burgomaster’s knee. ‘I am here, more than that I do not know, more than that I cannot do. My boat has no rudder; it is driven by the wind that blows in the nethermost regions of death.”‘

The hunter Gracchus is a diminished human being in a sense that is new in this investigation into variously missing persons. It would be imprecise and insufficient to consider him an “absentee” according to any traditional definition of that term, even if by his own account his whereabouts have been unknown for an unusually long time: “Fifteen hundred years,” as he wistfully recalls in one of Kafka’s other accounts of him. Unlike a missing person in the legal sense, he cannot be presumed to be alive; in his every appearance, he insists that he has died. It would be at least as dissatisfying, however, to infer that he is a nonperson after the manner of those who suffer a “decrease of the head.” Although it is likely that Gracchus may not lay claim to the rights and prerogatives of any ordinary subject of the law, it is certain that the death that he claims to have suffered is not exclusively civil. His case, in short, is neither that of the legal person crafted in the absence of a body nor that of the living body that persists in the diminution or nullification of the legal person.

Nonetheless, like the representation fashioned in the aftermath of the missing body and the peculiar status of the human being diminished by some formal legal or social procedure, the hunter Gracchus is, in a precise sense, a nonperson. For he is a being about whom—or which—it is impossible to maintain either of these contradictory propositions: that “he is a person” or that he “is not a person.” In his return to Riva, as in his intermittent appearances in Kafka’s papers, he raises a disquieting, yet intractable question: the question of what, in a human being, outlasts death, being “to some extent” alive.

Each time, the reader learns that the hunter Gracchus has arrived—or rather that he has returned in his customary fashion.

Any consideration of Kafka’s accounts of Gracchus must begin with the observation that they are unpublished and unauthorized; in principle, all were to be destroyed according to the author’s wishes. None of the surviving texts can be considered complete in any simple sense, and the variations, commonalities, and breaks among the extant “versions” of the material have been variously interpreted. It remains uncertain how many Gracchus texts there are. Some scholars argue for the existence of three versions of the material, others for five. Malcolm Pasley, the editor of the German critical edition, suggests, on the basis of a convincing study of Kafka’s papers, that there are four “Gracchus fragments.”

The surest point of entry into the universe of this multiple, yet insistently loquacious dead man may lie in the formal architecture of Kafka’s four narrations. They rely on a single set of grammatical possibilities: those afforded by personal pronouns. Each time, it is by means of an/, a you, or a he that Gracchus is announced.

The “fragments” can be ordered by means of the role these persons play. The diary entry consists first of sentences belonging to some third person’s perspective and then of an exchange in direct discourse, involving an / and a you. This sequence first relates the events that occurred “today, in the little harbour,” in an impersonal voice; then it introduces the view of a narrator, who appears as a witness to the arrival of the “clumsy old craft.” He recalls striking up a conversation, in perplexity, with a workman near the water: “I gazed at it in astonishment for some time, waited for someone to show himself on deck. No one appeared. A workman sat down beside me on the harbour wall. ‘Whose ship is that?’ I asked.” The passage ends with an answer, in direct discourse, which concerns neither the speaker nor the addressee, but the unseen owner of the bark: “‘It puts in every two or three years,’ said the man, ‘and belongs to the hunter Gracchus.”‘

By contrast, the longest of the Gracchus narratives in the notebooks lacks any reference to a narrator. This sequence begins resolutely in the third person, with sentences that seem to admit of no subjective perspective, according to the Flaubertian model of impersonality that Kafka admired and made his own. The scene at Riva is laid out absolutely, without any indication of time with respect to storytelling, such as “today,” and without any indication of perspective with respect to the origin of the discourse, such as “I” or “you.” No one recounts these few details: “Two boys were sitting on the harbour playing dice. On the steps of a monument a man was reading a newspaper.” It is only once the burgomaster and Gracchus are alone in the dark room that the discourse shifts. Diegesis gives way to mimesis. The first words are those of the man on the bier: “Who are you?” The two men begin to converse. Each addresses the other as a second person; each uses the first person for himself. This text ends with the words of the hunter, which do not explicitly evoke anyone: “My boat has no rudder; it is driven by the wind that blows in the nethermost regions of death.”

The notebooks contain a further account of Gracchus that possesses a different grammatical and literary form. This sequence begins and proceeds without any narration, consisting solely of the exchange of direct discourse in conversation. Everything occurs within one cabin on the “old boat.” The inception is a question that is addressed to the hunter and that refers to speech omitted from the text: ‘”What is it you say, hunter Gracchus, you have been sailing for hundreds of years now in this old boat?’ ‘For fifteen hundred years.’ ‘And always in this ship?’ ‘Always in this bark. Bark, I believe, is the correct expression. You aren’t familiar with nautical matters?'” Here there are only two persons, and both are speakers. Over a bottle of wine, Gracchus answers his interlocutor’s questions about his vessel, its recently deceased master, and his own origins, death, and survival—until he learns of his conversation partner’s ignorance. Belatedly, it occurs to the pensive hunter to pose a question whose answer proves the occasion for the end of the discussion:

“I say, do you know the Black Forest?” “No.” “You really don’t know anything. The little child of the helmsman knows more, truly far more, than you do. Who wafted you in here anyway? It’s a calamity. Your initial modest y was only too well justified. You’re a mere nothing I am filling up with wine. So now you don’t even know the Black Forest. And I was born there. Until I was twenty-five I hunted there. If only the chamois hadn’t led me on—well, now you know it—I’d have had a long and happy hunter’s life, but I was lured by the chamois! I fell and was killed on the rocks below. Don’t ask any more. Here I am, dead, dead, dead. Don’t know why I’m here.”

Any consideration of Kafka’s accounts of Gracchus must begin with the observation that they are unpublished and unauthorized; in principle, all were to be destroyed according to the author’s wishes.

This rapid summary of the syntax of three Gracchus texts suffices to define their permutations of grammatical and narrative form. There are, in short, two sequences that begin in a third person before passing into dialog and introducing speakers: the diary entry and the extended narrative from the notebooks. There is, moreover, one sequence that consists wholly of dialog: the conversation in the cabin. The fourth “fragment,” however, is of another form. It knows neither the third person nor the second; in it, narration and dialog remain equally absent. There, a first person writes alone. He reflects on his condition: “As I write this I am lying on a wooden board; I wear—it is no pleasure to look at me—a filthy winding-sheet; my legs are covered by a large woman’s shawl of flower-patterned silk with long fringes.” He recalls the origins of his state:

I have been lying here ever since the time when I, still the live hunter Gracchus at home in the Black Forest, was hunting a chamois and fell. Everything happened in good order. I gave chase, I fell, I bled to death in a ravine, I was dead, and this bark was supposed to convey me to the next world. I can still remember how cheerfully I stretched myself out on this board for the first time; never had the mountains heard such song from me as was heard then by these four still shadowy walls. I had been glad to live and was glad to die; before stepping aboard I joyfully flung down my miserable accoutrements, rifle, knapsack, hunting coat, that I had always worn with pride, and I slipped into my winding sheet like a girl into her wedding-dress. I lay there and waited.

The fourth version might seem to complete a circuit of narrative possibilities drawn out in the other three “fragments.” After texts of narration in the third person and texts of dialog in which each speaker addresses a second person, the reader encounters a statement in the first person. But the truth is that this fourth rendition stands apart. The others contain elements suggesting the possibility of a transition, in storytelling, between speaking subjects. From a third person, they move to a first person and to a second person; from a first person, they pass to a second person and conversely leave open the eventuality of a transition to a third. Yet the sequence in which Gracchus writes on his wooden board refuses the perspective of any third person; this recounting excludes any viewpoint but that of the solitary writer. For this reason, it precludes the possibility of an interlocutor, forbidding dialog as such. Alone, the writer draws out this consequence:

No one will read what I write here. No one will come to help me. Even if there were a commandment to help me, all the doors of all the houses would remain closed; all the windows would stay closed; all the people would lie in their beds with the blankets drawn over their heads; the whole earth one great nocturnal lodging. And there is sense in that, for no one knows of me; and if anyone knew of me, he would not know where I could be found; and if anyone knew where I could be found, he would not know how to help me. The idea of wanting to help me is a sickness, and it has to be cured in bed.

It has often been noted that by its structure, writing in general anticipates the vanishing of its author, being language crafted to survive the cessation of speech. This text renders that disappearance brightly visible. In the notebook, this passage appears to follow the statement, “I am the hunter Gracchus; my home is in the Black Forest in Germany.” But after those words of self-identification, Kafka draws a line. Only then does he write “No one will read what I write here.” As Roland Reuß has noted, the consequence is that it is not immediately evident to whom this statement belongs; only in the next folio is it referred to the hunter Gracchus. The most striking feature of this passage, however, concerns not the effacement of the writer, but the programmatic denial of the possibility of a reader. “No one will read what I write here” seems to be the statement of an uncompromising exclusion. The truth is that it is equivocal. In a first sense, it establishes a simple inexistence: there will be no reader for what is written. In a second sense, the statement has a different meaning: according to the paradoxically affirmative syntax of its form, it suggests that there is a reader—one who is, however, “No One.”

This rapid summary of the syntax of three Gracchus texts suffices to define their permutations of grammatical and narrative form.

This would be Kafka’s Roman hunter’s variation on Odysseus’s ancient ruse. Gracchus guarantees that even—or especially—where his words are heard, they will be perceived by someone utterly lacking in identity or individuality, or both. They are for No One. To the obvious question of who might this No One be? Gracchus suggests an answer: it is a person such as himself, the solitary writer. Reader and writer share in a single impossibility. Each is no one, either on account of being of no consequence, “a mere nothing being filled up with wine,” according to the dialogic sequence of the material, which casts the hunter’s conversation partner as an amiable Polyphemus, or on account of being so untimely as to be unknowable. Yet there is also a further sense in which the writer, like the reader he denies, is no one, and it is still more disquieting. Being someone or something that is “to a certain extent” alive past death, Gracchus eludes the very idea of a human being. He is not a person, but rather the indeterminate and indeterminable remains of one.

What is certain is that Gracchus writes, and he does so solely for himself, whoever or whatever he may be. Without troubling himself to add an indication of time or place, he composes a diary of a kind, if only on a single page, without preface or continuation. In this sense, he is not entirely unlike the writer called “Kafka,” which in Czech means “jackdaw” or, in the language of the Romans, gracchus. An imagined No One or the real and only author, a first person, a second person, or a third, the hunter Gracchus can in any case be only an absentee. Nonetheless—and for this very reason—he and the questions he raises make appearances and reappearances, visits and visitations, in Kafka’s own books and diaries and beyond them: in the variegated fields of law, mythology, ritual, and theology. From time to time, Gracchus returns to Riva, place and also “shore” (riva), living on, defying the power to name and to represent.


Absentees: On Variously Missing Persons by Daniel Heller-Roazen

From Absentees: On Variously Missing Persons by Daniel Heller-Roazen. Used with the permission of Princeton University Press and Zone Books. Copyright © 2021 by Daniel Heller-Roazen.

Daniel Heller-Roazen
Daniel Heller-Roazen
Daniel Heller-Roazen is the Arthur W. Marks ’19 Professor of Comparative Literature and the Council of Humanities at Princeton University. He is the author, most recently, of No One’s Ways: An Essay on Infinite Naming, Dark Tongues: The Art of Rogues and Riddlers, and The Fifth Hammer: Pythagoras and the Disharmony of the World.

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