Hunger as a social condition is something not very new. I have seen documentaries on local TV depicting miserable conditions of hunger and poverty, and I can’t help but shed some tears every time, especially when I see children and even babies suffering from lack of food. Suffice it to say that going hungry is not exactly a choice these people wanted to make, and who would want to? Unless, of course, one is talking about fasting from food, or dieting to lose weight, which are entirely a different matter.
However, with Knut Hamsun’s Nobel Prize winner, Hunger, we not only get to see the miserable living conditions of a person who is hungry almost all the time, but most importantly, we get to see what is inside the mind of a hungry man. Set in Christiana (Oslo), Norway, the narrator lets us into his thoughts and allows us to experience at least what it feels to be really hungry. Oh, I have my own bouts with hunger too while I was living alone away from home, but these were short-lived (like an hour or two) and were actually brought about by my utter laziness to buy food (because I prefer to sleep rather than eat), and these often ended up with me binge-eating after I got the chance to eat. But my experiences were puny compared to what the narrator in this depressing novel has to go through. Ever tried biting your finger out of sheer hunger until they bled? What about chewing wood? His conditions are so pathetic that even when he finally gets to eat something, he cannot help himself but throw it up again.
Several questions ran through my mind while I was reading Hunger, and I must say that they still remain unanswered even after I’m done with it. Why did the narrator go hungry? Was it his own choice or by some force of circumstance? Does he have a family? Who is he? What is his name?
But I guess Knut Hamsun feels that these details about our narrator are unimportant. What he wants is for us to look into a starving man’s thoughts and see how hunger can easily sway a person’s moods and how his true character will be revealed when he goes through a near-death experience such as dying from hunger. Snippets of the narrator’s identity can be gleaned from the narrative – how he was not poor before, that he is a struggling writer, that he is actually an honorable man. Most importantly, that he is a smart man. How can he make such vivid observations about his surroundings and about his feelings and thoughts in the midst of his hungry pains if he was not a smart man?
There are parts which I find amusing despite the abject misery of the narrator’s conditions. His encounters with Ylayali, for example, at least provided some humor, and I must give it to this poor man that despite his sufferings, he still struggles to be honorable and at least rescue some vignettes of what is left of his dignity.
“How wonderful it felt to be an honorable man again!…I was not a hardened and damned soul, my honorable nature had risen against that sordid deed, yes it had. Thanks to God, I had raised myself in my own estimation.” (p.148)
The book is divided into four parts and each starts with the narrator being hungry and struggling to finish an article which he hopes his editor will pay him for at least five kroner. Each part ends with him finally finding temporary relief from his hunger and this cycle will repeat until the end of the book. Maybe there will never be an end to his misery despite the book having ended, who knows?
I finished writing this post right after lunch where I had my fill of my mother’s cooking. Somehow, I felt doubly grateful that I had the luxury of choosing not to over-eat while our hungry narrator has no other choice but to hold on to his honor and dignity and wait until the next kroner comes along.
“I began to hiccup from fury, and struggled with every bit of energy against my collapse, fought a really stout battle not to fall down. I didn’t want to fall, I wanted to die standing. (p. 221)”
March 2013 Required Reading Challenge.
Recommended by: Angus
My copy: paperback from Booksale.