Book Review – Hunger by Knut Hamsun (1890)

HungerHunger by Knut Hamsun
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A review of this book from my pen is akin to injustice. After all, what do I know of hunger? Something that loses its meaning with a hop to the kitchen? A need that vanishes with the stair-climbing to the canteen? A routine that knocks every four hours, only to be dispatched back to its den with a pouring of necessary and unnecessary stuff? A fuel that is available at an arm’s length? A six-lettered word that assumes greater importance in symbolic garb than its bare attire?

I have been fortunate. This beast has not imprisoned me beyond few days. But on those very few days, I have met him. On those few, religious days when I have been compelled to meet him, I have met him. On those unannounced stranded days when a morsel had been a long meeting away, I have met him. In the eyes; stark and dark. And he runs havoc. He gnaws with his sharp paws and he shrieks in his piercing voice, he snaps my nervous tranquilities and he slaps my organ’s functionalities, he throws vile liquids up my throat and he shovels my ideals out of the window.

Probably that is why, I could fathom the emotions running hysterically amok within the unnamed protagonist of this novel, who had only one enemy: hunger. A writer, who likes diving into the inky seas of politics, drama, poetry and recitation on the bed of teeming, blank pages, finds his resources maliciously blackened under the noxious cloud of prolonged hunger. He chews on stale bread and squeezes into abandoned spaces but the beast finds him there. He bites into meatless bones and clutches his stomach under pungent blankets but the beast turns up again. To appease the beast, he devours coarse pieces of wood, mouths half of his shirt’s pockets and licks his own blood but the beast pounds on his doors again, and again, and again; without rest, without pause, in harrowing ferocity, in towering intimidation.

It is as if a score of diminutive gnome-like insects set their heads on one side and gnawed for a little, then laid their heads on the other side and gnawed a little more, then lay quite still for a moment’s space, and then began afresh, boring noiselessly in, and without any haste, and left empty spaces everywhere after them as they went on.

However, despite this unbearable burden of abject poverty and indeterminate survival, he releases episodes into his life that brings one of the foremost teachings of my father, rushing to my mind. My baba, as I address him, maintained that one can live without food for days, without peace for hours and without air for minutes but one cannot live without dignity and self-respect for even a second.

Having subjected it to numerous tests with nil fallacy, I am assured of the accuracy of this lesson and hence, the sight of our protagonist preserving his self-respect at the cost of handing his inhumanly underfed body, a sentence of further abjuration, left a restorative smile on my face. He keeps his skin of honesty wrapped tight to his resilient heart, despite the shrinking and eventual shedding of external clothing in lieu of a token crumb to humour the raging beast. And almost logically but irregularly, the beast accepts taming when the halo from that resilient heart assumes indomitable magnificence, blind-folding it in layers of goodness, humour, affection, companionship and praise for the creator.

The breadth of this work expands in multidimensional plains of psychology and multifarious schemas of sociology, effecting an amalgamation of astounding inferences that can be picked at every small juncture of the alleys running in human psyche; I cannot credit Hamsun enough for his surgical precision in uncovering the human mind and segregating his nervous dynamics, keeping the black and white in their birth colors, diluting none and awarding credit for the role each one plays.

Hamsun was considered to be often skewed towards an asocial vision, alienating tendencies and isolated ways of life. But perhaps it is essential to understand the asocial knot to thread the social yarn; much like the shadows retreating behind opaque patches for the sunshine to melt and clear the vision.

I do not wish the fate of our protagonist to anyone. But if you stumble upon one, exhibit some chivalry, sensitivity and measured humour – the proven sedatives for the beast.

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[Image courtesy http://philippics.nu ]

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