Down and out in Paris and London meets Crime and punishment with a Dash of Catcher in the Rye.
One of the things I’ve inherited from my father is an over heightened sense of punctuality. I can’t stand being late to things. I can remember as a child turning up to see one of the Harry Potter films an hour early because he didn’t want to risk missing the film due to queues. In my working life I do very much the same thing and always arrive at meetings with a minimum of half an hour to spare. At this point I will usually sit and have coffee while reading to pass the time. Recently I arrived at Kings Cross for a client talk and realised with horror that I had thirty five minutes to kill and no book on me. Luckily a small station book shop caught my eye and I picked up Hunger by Knut Hatsum. I’d heard of it in passing before and decided to give it a go.
Set in Kristiania in the late 19th Century, Hunger tells the story of an unknown writer desperately trying to hold his life together whilst suffering through abject poverty. Any brief success he has is short lived as a mix of writers block, illness and homelessness stop him from being able to finish any of his creations. Slowly but surely we see his mind unravel over the course of the book to the point where traits that would seem annoying or petulant in other characters like Holden Caulfield add to a deeply pitiful figure that you can’t help feeling sorry for.
This book could be paired perfectly with Down and out in Paris and London. It’s portrayals of abject poverty and starvation is a stark contrast to the world that we live in now making it a chilling story to read. Where it distances itself from its Orwellian counterpart is the extent of the “hunger” that our main protagonist feels. There are scenes in this book that will make you genuinely uncomfortable and maybe a little guilty depending on how strong your own conscious is. The fact that I read a large chunk of this whilst eating Guinness braised beef steak with mashed potatoes didn’t exactly help my appetite.
In the same way that Dostoyevsky creates a flow of prose to surround Raskolnikov in “Crime and Punishment”, the narrators voice in “Hunger” is a thing of beauty to read. His alienation from society due to his lack of wealth makes a language that is readily readable and instantly relatable. The following quote is perhaps one of my favourites.
“I felt pleasantly empty, untouched by everything around me and happy to be unseen by all. I put my legs up on the bench and leaned back, the best way to feel the true well-being of seclusion. There wasn’t a cloud in my mind, nor did I feel any discomfort, and I hadn’t a single unfulfilled desire or craving as far as my thought could reach. I lay with open eyes in a state of utter absence from myself and felt deliciously out of it”
Who should read this book? Any fans of Orwell, Salinger or Dostoyevsky should definitely give this a go. If you are looking for a quick read then it would also be quite a good choice. I finished it in a day and that was just time spent on the tube and a quick stop in a café. If you are looking for something to challenge your perceptions or your usual reading tastes then I would definitely recommend this. However, if you find the slight patheticness of characters like Holden Caulfield or Esther Greenwood annoying then this isn’t for you. Our unnamed narrator is in need of a lot of things, mainly a hug, a good bath and some soup. If your sympathy gene isn’t running on overload then maybe stay away.