Two-Fisted Franz Kafka Combat Tales: The Hill

A voice woke me from my deep, dreamless sleep. “Samsa? Private Samsa – Get up! The Krauts have dug in on Hill-21. I need you an’ Joe K to knock out their machine-gun nest.”

“But, Sarge, I-I’m a . . . monster,” I answered. But instead of a sob of existential despair, I could only make a series of unintelligible clicking and scraping sounds. I burrowed deeper into my foxhole, tried to hide. “Can you not see my dung-coloured, bathtub-sized carapace? My repulsive, eight-limbed thorax and twittering mouth-parts? I am an inhuman grotesquerie! A repellent freak!”

“Huh? Are you . . . disobeying a direct order? On yer feet, soldier—now!” I could see disappointment and disgust in Sargeant Spinoza’s eyes, magnified a thousandfold by my compound insect eyes. I thought I would drown in my own shame. “Nobody lives forever!” he added.

“Well, okay,” said I. There was no faulting his logic.

“Why are we here?” asked K miserably as we inched our way up the slope. What’s the point of all this, of . . . of anything?” He threw down his carbine and wept.

I made a ‘cut the gab’ sign with all eight limbs at once (four of them squeezed into size-12 G.I. boots), lost balance and rolled down the hill. Like tragic Sisyphus, forced to roll a boulder up a hill, was I also doomed to endlessly repeat my own climb for all eternity? I lit four Lucky Strikes and smoked them at the same time. Meh.

We rushed the German position. Well, actually, I scuttled and skittered, zigzagged to and fro, back and forth, a human cockroach tacking on the winds of an unkind and uncaring Fate. K stumbled forward, staring at the grenade in his fist, as if unable to comprehend its function or it underlying epistemological purpose. “I don’t know what this is!” he wailed. “What is it—what is this thing that I hold?”

The M1 carbine was not designed to be fired by one such as I—a vile, guilt-ridden mockery of an insect-man—so I waved it at the enemy in what I hoped was an appropriately aggressive manner and made disparaging cricket noises.

Wehrmacht troops threw down their weapons and fled at the sight of me. “Ach! Run! It’s an American secret weapon—ein Kakerlakensoldat!”

Our target was in sight. But a dour-faced German sapper appeared and flagged us down. “Stop! Are you authorised to be here? Without the appropriate signature this attack cannot proceed!”

“What?” said I, incredulously. “Whose signature?”

“I cannot say.”

“Cannot—or will not?”

“I’m not permitted to answer that. I have my orders, you know.” And he turned his back on me—somewhat petulantly, I thought—folded his arms and pouted. So I scuttled round him.

I yelled down to the enemy machine-gunner in his camou- flaged dug-out. “Hullooo! Who’s in charge? We’re here to attack you.”

The gunner answered from within, his face a solemn white moon rising from the darkness of life’s tragic abyss. “Ha! What trifles constitute happiness!” he replied, quoting Nietzsche—or maybe it was Don Rickles. I don’t speak German. “Ah, the sound of a bagpipe... without music life would be a mistake. The German imagines even God as a songster!” He began singing In The Mood, his assistant-gunner doing the trumpet parps and the pair Lindy Hopped their way out of their dug-out and off into the woods.

The Sarge lit a cheroot in the cold, grey light of dawn. “Attaboy, Samsa! Yer a hero. The Lieut has recommended you for a Purple Heart. But him, the poor dumb schmuck—” He nodded towards where Joe K stood, paralysed, still contem- plating the grenade, his face a pale, grim parody of Munch’s painting, The Scream. “It’s the bug-house for him.”

First published in 1949, The Hill was filmed in 1952 by Frank Capra (no relation) starring Audie Murphy as PFC Greg Samsa, Glenn Ford as Joe K and Marlene Dietrich as Sarge.

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Penultiman #3