Posted by: Corri van de Stege | January 21, 2009

A Book Review: Hoffman’s Hunger by Leon the Winter

HOFFMAN'S HUNGER

Hoffman’s Hunger is a bestseller in Germany and The Netherlands, according to the cover and Dutch reviewers compare the literary style of De Winter with that of Kundera’s.  I have never been a great follower of Dutch literature but this is one of the few Dutch books that I have greatly enjoyed reading.  I must add here, that I read it in English, not in Dutch, and the translation is excellent.

In the first chapter we meet Freddy Mancini, an overweight American who is taken on a trip to Europe by his wife Bobby and on the advice of his dietician.  However, Mancini realises that he is unhappy and that because of his unhappiness, for which he cannot find a reason, he has a craving for food.  This craving for food is his undoing because as he manages to sneak out of the Prague hotel in the middle of the night he is subsequently robbed by the taxi driver who supposedly is taking him to the only night restaurant in Prague, a secret one, and he then witnesses the kidnapping of one of his fellow travellers, an American. 

This chapter however is merely the scene setting, the story is not about Mancini, although he pops up again later as part of the puzzle, but about Felix Hoffman, who in the Dutch Ambassadorial kitchen in Prague is wolfing down the leftovers of a party and washing it down with champagne and wine.  Hoffman, like Mancini, is eternally hungry and knowingly eats and drinks himself to death.  Hoffman is an insomniac, has been for 20 years, and spends night after night trying to unravel Spinoza’s Treatise on the Correction of the Understanding and on the Way in which it may be directed towards a true knowledge of things.

Hoffman is a Dutch Jew and does not come across as a very likeable character, he upsets people, he is in a Dutch way often crude and insensitive to others.  But he is human and as we get glimpses of his childhood, of his failing marriage, of the death of his daughters, we begin to understand that there are reasons for his insomnia and his behaviour.  His childhood is crudely disrupted with the German occupation of The Netherlands and he spends his early teenage years hiding with a pig farmer.  After the war is over he discovers that his parents have disappeared altogether.   His marriage is failing and both his daughters have died.

None of this is however offered as an excuse for his behaviour.  Hoffman is who he is, a Dutch diplomat who at the very end of his career and to his surprise was promoted to ambassador level.  He is posted in a Prague that is in the grips of secret police and communist dictatorship.  The story develops into one that has similar Kafkaeske moments as the ones you find in John le Carre’s work, that of intrigue and spy webs.  However, this is not a spy story as such, it is about Hoffman and his hunger and the unravelling of his understanding of his own life and coming to terms with it.  

This is a very well written book, one that keeps you turning the pages, wanting to find out where Hoffman is going, even if you get the feeling that he himself does not care much about you being there.  He is unselfconscious and far too raw to be concerned about anyone else.  In the end, we feel for him, even if he does not particularly want our sympathy.

I could not remember who recommended this book, I did jot it down as one to be read.  Now I have been reminded that it was Lisa at Eudaemonia: and many thanks for this recommendation.  De Winter really is a great writer (and perhaps I should try and read his next novel in Dutch – and why not?).  I do recommend this book to anyone who is interested and intrigued by the lives caught up in the larger history of Europe.

According to De Winter’s biography, he invariably writes about a man in crisis who is looking for his (Jewish) identity.  Hoffman’s hunger clearly fits into that category.

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Responses

  1. Great review and I’m so glad you liked it! I’m hoping more of de Winter’s works will be translated into English as reading them in Dutch is not an option for me 🙂

  2. Hey, Seachange
    Do you ever wish you had two heads so you could read twice as many books at the same time?

  3. lisa: I actually quite enjoy reading him in English… I can see that Dutch might cause difficulty though!
    sherylgwyther: only two?????

  4. This sounds fascinating. I’m adding it to my list!


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