Book Reviews, The Noble Nobel Project
Comments 8

Probably the book that best describes me – Hunger by Knut Hamsun

Hunger by Knut Hamsun

I really can’t help raving about this. I always thank my lucky stars for that day when I bought this at a secondhand book store without intending to. It must be the universe conspiring with the forces; the book spine stared straight into my eyes. I couldn’t resist; I felt a sense of literary power emanating from the book.

It was during that time when I’d just randomly pick a book. After reading this, my impulses were justified. This book became my sort of bible. Not really that, but close. Or maybe it’s more appropriate to say that this book best describes me. There even is something clownish about that statement; I’m a skinny guy and is there any book title that could be more befitting than Hunger?

I feel a strong attachment to this like the way a lot of people hold on to their copies of The Catcher in the Rye. I am well-acquainted with at least two. As much as I’d like to lend my copy to my favorite people and force them to immediately read it altogether, I cannot part with it so long. So I resorted to buying stray copies at sale bins and giving them away. I already gave the blogger of Dark Chest of Wonders a trade paperback. I even think I was able to make two people buy their own copies at regular book stores.

Why am I doing this? Check out this passage snatched out of my dead Tumblr blog:

What actually was I waiting for? I had run around the whole day after one krone in order to stay alive a few more hours. What was the difference, really, if what was inevitable happened one day earlier or one day later? If I had been behaving like a reasonable man, I would have gone home and lain down quietly a long time ago, just given up. For an instant my brain was utterly clear. I was going to die; fall had come and everything was ready to hibernate. I had tried every way out, used every possible means I knew of. I hugged that idea with sentimentality and every time I thought hopefully of a possible way out, I whispered, nay-saying: “You fool, you, your whole body has started to die!” What I should do is to write a few letters, get everything ready, and have myself prepared. I would get myself clean, and make my bed; I would lay my head on my pile of writing paper, the purest thing I had left, and I could put the green blanket…

Did I just make a point of shoving a book about a psychologically challenged man who is both maintaining a stance of social respectability and self-destructing at the same time? In essence, this novel speaks of transcendence through hunger. Hence, the title.

It is the bittersweet tale of an unnamed man prowling the streets of Oslo, formerly Christiania. There are a lot of funny things on the surface, but if the reader mulls over the psychological misadventures, he will realize that this is a harrowing, depressing tale of self-preservation despite the nuisances of the mind. The narrator has potential; he does freelance writing, he could work full time and earn a decent living if he could just maintain his bouts of intellectual lucidity, but more often than not, these are as fleeting as our thoughts.

Which is reasonable, if you ask me. Our thoughts are like midnight trains that make the bridges of our minds tremble with such power, and we fail to feel the trembling just because our half-asleep state renders us incapable of doing so. And once the smoke is all that’s left to see, our thoughts have already escaped us, numbing our minds that are screaming of want. Like our thoughts are never really our own.

The book also speaks of pantheism. Theological readers might view some of the passages as sheer blasphemy. God is treated here like some snooty government official wherein the civilian has to kiss-ass to get things done. It’s both funny and existential, reading about the narrator having a conversation with God, which is on the surface having a conversation with one’s self.

We might not really understand why a random man would start stamping a bowler hat on the middle of the road or scream and laugh at cabbages and declare that they are not cabbages. This could be a sign of borderline personality. Just imagine the strangeness of it if ever you encounter one man. We might make sense out of this action if we are given a hint on what’s going on his head.

And that’s where the reader takes a tour. As much as I would like to talk more about chewing wood or more about the perilously elemental thoughts that flicker inside the head of a severely hungry person, I’d stop now. I was sort of berated for spoiling the former detail. Really, I didn’t find it the least troubling to tell a random person that the narrator does this because I didn’t say why he does it. The would-be reader has to find out the reasons behind the things that he do.

And why does he invent a name for a woman who already has a name? Why does he force this name on her? Why does he invent seemingly useless words? Why does he hold on to things that aren’t worth a krone? Why does he think that he can do better? And ultimately, why does he, an educated middle-class man, choose to starve himself to near death?

5 star - it was amazingI’ve never gone on hunger strikes or deprived myself of food. I even indulge myself at times with expensive food just because I can. Despite these, I declare that this book is me. Reading this is like rummaging through the clutters of my head.

If you want to know, I sometimes catch myself talking out loud, mostly having a conversation with a friend, like practicing lines for a movie. Or acting out childish tantrums, complete with the petulant whine of a toddler. I haven’t a bowler to stamp on, but I do stamp. One time on the middle of the road. So yes, I feel like I am that unnamed narrator.

But the hunger thing that he does, I don’t know. I am actually hungry now; it’s past lunch time as of this writing. But I’ll deal with the hunger for at least an hour more.



  1. I think you’re like one of my kids I raised — the one who would rather read than eat. I’ve not read the book, Hunger, yet I can well imagine that severe hunger would derange thinking–mine, anyway.


    • Oh, if I could only sacrifice our biological needs, I would do so. I strongly suggest you read this one and judge whether the narrator’s thinking is deranged or not. :)


  2. Oh you made me curious! Have you read Zola’s L’Assommoir? What makes me love it is how Zola described hunger and poverty to the extreme level. Would this be similar? Or even more extreme… (the later I guess..)


    • I have yet to read Zola, but yes, Hamsun’s hunger is of a transcendental level. It’s just … riveting. You have to read it if you get a copy of it. :D


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