Monday, April 04, 2011

Hoffman’s Hunger

Not every Jewish writer who earns international attention is an anti-Zionist. The Dutch novelist Leon de Winter, who makes short work of the whining about “the inhumanity of Israeli policy” and understands only too well what animates Palestinian Arab culture, is famous throughout Europe for his intellectual thrillers. Hoffman’s Hunger, originally published in the Netherlands in 1990, was the first of his twelve novels to be translated into English. (To date only one other, God’s Gym, has been Englished. Both were published by the Toby Press, and remain in print.) In an article written last year for Standpoint, Winter named Franz Kafka and Isaac Bashevis Singer as his literary influences—Kafka for his depiction of a “world that could not be controlled,” Singer for his “poor and vigorous and colourful Jews.” It is not an exaggeration to say that his fiction is a heady mixture of these two great Jewish novelists’ themes, nor that Winter belongs in their company.

Set in the last months before the disintegration of Communist Eastern Europe, Hoffman’s Hunger follows the adventures of the new Dutch ambassador to Prague. Felix Hoffman is a “twentieth-century nihilist (his view of himself).” A Jew who was orphaned by the Holocaust, he was raised by a Catholic family in Den Bosch, a small city in southern Holland where Winter himself was born and raised. After marrying a beauty who bore him non-identical twin daughters, Hoffman was “deliriously happy,” even though his diplomatic career was not on the fast track. At the age of eight, though, one of the girls develops leukemia and turns before his eyes into a “little wizened crone with gentle eyes.”

On the day she dies, Hoffman “become[s] his own prisoner.” For the next two decades, he does not sleep. Alone at night, he begins to begins to eat, “demolish[ing] plate loads of food with a rapacious hunger” that goes on all night. His wife “gave his hunger a name, along the lines of ‘Parkinson’s’ or ‘Alzheimer’s’—she called it ‘Hoffman’s Hunger.’ ” His fragile self-control breaks down completely. Hoffman subverts his marriage, his career, his health. His other daughter dies of a drug overdose after sinking to pornography. By the time he is posted to Prague at fifty-nine, Hoffman is a “sleepless alcoholic with chronic hunger who had forfeited his right to exist long ago.”

His two-decade insomnia is not merely a waste product of grief. In her final days, his daughter Esther comes to accept her imminent death. And like so many patients with terminal cancer, she offers consolation to her family instead of seeking it:

     “It’s all right, Daddy, it really is all right.”
     “It won’t be all right until you’re better.”
     “No. Just let me be as I am. I know.”
     “What do you know, darling?”
     She smiled, from somewhere beyond the pain.
     “I know, Daddy. . .”
     “But what, Esther darling? What do you know?”
     She said it once more, barely audible this time. “I know, Daddy. . .”
Esther dies before she can tell her father what she knows. Hoffman is haunted by her last words. They keep him awake for twenty years.

He endures the long nights by eating constantly and reading a translation of the Tractatus de Intellectus Emendatione, a treatise on human understanding by Spinoza circa 1662, which Hoffman finds in the attic of the Dutch embassy. As he struggles with the book, he realizes that what Spinoza wants is to devise a method that would “provide perfect knowledge and point the way to supreme wisdom.” Thus it could be, for Hoffman, another means to acquire Esther’s final knowledge.

Hoffman’s Hunger takes its structure from Spinoza’s treatise. After a chapter that feints toward the subplot or parallel narrative, the novel opens with the first paragraph of the treatise, and by the time that Hoffman finishes the book five months later—or, rather, by the time he realizes that Spinoza left it unfinished—his story is almost over (except for a coda in one last chapter).

The novel’s plot is the intertwining of two different stories about men who betray their countries. The men and their stories parallel each other—two fat men who are tormented by a “hungering after repletion,” two cases of bad health, two bad marriages, two acts of treason undertaken to feed the hunger—but their ends are different.

Hoffman finds redemption. Although he decides that he is no patriot, although he has no qualms about paying back the country that had betrayed his parents to the Nazis, he is not motivated by politics. And though he is spared by the Velvet Revolution, which diminishes his crime of passing secrets to the Czech Communists, he does not find redemption in politics. Human freedom is renewed in Eastern Europe, but Hoffman is a “professional outsider, a permanent refugee.” He is excluded from the celebration. For him, “[i]t seemed out of the question that a lasting peace would descend upon Europe.”

Redemption comes from an unexpected quarter. On the run from the KLPD, Hoffman holes up in the family’s summer home in Vught, site of a Nazi transit camp. Unwashed and stinking, he is a “specimen of human despair and arrogance.” He admits that he has “brought destruction upon his own head and was searching for some way of atoning.” He finds the way in Spinoza’s Tractatus. The book “suddenly appeared to him as a kind of liturgy.” While the great philosopher had gone in search of ultimate truth, Hoffman himself is particularly concerned to discover how the average layman might learn to pray again. He is not a believer, but he knows that he must pray if he is to atone for the “stupidity” and “egoism” of his twenty-years hunger—he must “pray, without believing.”

In telling how Hoffman came to pray, Leon de Winter has told one of the great Jewish stories. I don’t mean simply that he has written one of the greatest Jewish novels of the past century, although he has, but also that he has unforgettably captured the predicament of the modern Jew, and how he finds his way out.

Winter’s books include:

Over de leegte in de wereld [stories] (Haarlem: In de Knipscheer, 1976). The Day before Yesterday, trans. Scott Rollins (New York: Vehicle Editions, 1985).

De (ver)wording van de jonge Dürer [“The Corruption of Young Dürer”] (Haarlem: In de Knipscheer, 1978).

Zoeken naar Eileen W [“Looking for Eileen W”] (Haarlem: In de Knipscheer, 1981).

Place de la Bastille (Haarlem: In de Knipscheer, 1981).

Vertraagde roman [“Delayed novel,” travel writing] (Haarlem: In de Knipscheer, 1982).

Kaplan (Amsterdam: De Bezige Bij, 1986).

Hoffman’s honger (Amsterdam: De Bezige Bij, 1990). Trans. Arnold and Erica Pomerans (New Milford, Conn.: Toby Press, 2007).

SuperTex (Amsterdam: De Bezige Bij, 1991).

De ruimte van Sokolov [“Room for Sokolov”] (Amsterdam: De Bezige Bij, 1992).

Serenade (Amsterdam: CPNB, 1995).

Zionoco (Amsterdam: De Bezige Bij, 1995).

De hemel van Hollywood [“The Hollywood Sky”] (Amsterdam: De Bezige Bij, 1997).

God’s Gym (Amsterdam: De Bezige Bij, 2002). Trans. Jeannette K. Ringold (New Milford, Conn.: Toby Press, 2009).

Het recht op terugkeer [“The Right of Return”] (Amsterdam: De Bezige Bij, 2008).


forcheville said...

What a strange figure Spinoza is! If he hadn't existed then someone like Bashevis Singer would have had to invent him.
The most rigourous seculariser, yet God-intoxicated, inspiration to both Goethe and Nietzsche, plague-bearer to traditional Judaism.
Somehow he remains endearingly Jewish, yet he's also a hero to the most radical elements of the left.
One needs the wry humour of the Dutch to do him justice, perhaps.