hoffmans hunger 88.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
By Leon de Winter
303 pages; $14.95
A couple of years ago I was invited to the home of the Dutch ambassador here for an evening in honor of the visiting novelist Leon de Winter, who proved to be a witty, charming, thoughtful and provocative dinner companion.
After reading a few articles this Dutch-Jewish author had written for English-language publications on the subject of the Islamic immigrant "time bomb" in the Netherlands, I committed myself to read at least one of his several novels. But to my surprise, I found that none of them had at that point been published in a readily available English translation.
Thankfully, that's no longer the case; Toby Press, the boutique publishing house that in part operates out of Jerusalem and specializes in introducing authors whose books have not previously appeared in English, has now made available a translation of de Winter's 1990 novel Hoffman's Hunger, providing him with an auspicious debut for English readers.
Hoffman's Hunger is set in Czechoslovakia in 1989, during the months leading up to the "Velvet Revolution" that finally overthrew Communist rule there. The protagonist is Felix Aaron Hoffman, the Dutch ambassador to Prague, who at 59 is reaching the end of both his career and his tether. Hoffman is a mess, emotionally, physically and spiritually, and as the book opens he is in the process of practically gorging himself to death.
A Dutch Jew whose parents were killed by the Nazis while he was hidden away with a gentile family, Hoffman has had equally bad luck with the fate of his two children. One of his daughters died from leukemia in childhood, and the other became a drug addict and appeared in porn films before also dying young. As a result, his marriage to Marian, an attractive academic, has shriveled into a loveless and sexless affair, the two held together largely by their mutual grief and guilt.
Hoffman's Hunger is billed on the book jacket as a "philosophical thriller." The former aspect stems largely from Hoffman's close reading throughout the novel of Baruch 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. Having lost his own faith and way in life, Hoffman hopes to find in the work of the 17th-century Dutch-Jewish philosopher some essence of meaning that has eluded him; "Evidently, Spinoza too, had been a man with his own career and a family and had, like everyone else, pursued honor and riches, but then had begun to doubt, and had decided to take a gamble: He could either give up what he had and experience supreme happiness, or hang on to what was his and make do."
The "thriller" part of Hoffman's Hunger stems from the arrest of a CIA agent on the streets of Prague that is witnessed by Freddy Mancini, an obese American tourist who also stuffs himself to fill a personal void. Mancini reports the incident to CIA handler John Marks, who is concerned it may lead to the exposure of a mole he has placed deep into Czech intelligence, a beautiful young agent code-named "Carla."
Marks needs a way to get Carla out of Czechoslovakia, and cooks up a plan that requires an unwitting dupe among the Western diplomatic corps. As it happens, Marks was once Marian Hoffman's lover, and decides to use her husband to further his designs. In short order, Hoffman finds himself seduced by Carla, and grabs onto their affair as a desperate last chance for "supreme happiness."
Instead, as the espionage scheme unfolds and political events in Prague move inexorably toward revolution, Hoffman finds himself heading quickly toward the edge of an abyss of personal and professional destruction.
The thriller aspects of Hoffman's Hunger never quite convinced this reader, and the book works best as a moving character study of the title character, an intelligent and sensitive man who nevertheless finds himself badly buffeted by both large- and small-scale events that are out of his control.
Although a lapsed Jew, Hoffman's status as a minority figure in one of Europe's smallest nations certainly colors his perspective throughout the book. Here, for example, is his somewhat less than enthusiastic take on the fall of the Iron Curtain: "Hoffman was in fact frightened to death of the free Romanians, men who had been able to give Germans lessons in the best ways of exterminating Jews during the war. The Hungarians, too, could boast of a century of anti-Semitic prime ministers. And what about the Saxons who had christened their country the GDR? He shivered at the thought of Saxons gaining independence and freedom from the Russians, or God forbid - uniting with the West Germans: give a German your little finger, and he'll chop off your whole hand."
Such sardonic observations scattered by de Winter throughout the book are what elevates the book above its occasionally pot-boiler plotting into a higher literary realm.
Few Dutch writers have ever found much of an audience outside the borders of the Netherlands. A notable exception in recent years is Harry Mulisch, author of such novels as The Assault and The Kingdom of Heaven, which also could be described as philosophical thrillers that touch on Jewish themes, and I was reminded of his work while reading this book.
De Winter clearly deserves the same kind of international exposure, and Hoffman's Hunger is a good start. He's written half a dozen other novels, most of them dealing with Jewish characters, that also await translation. How about it, Toby Press?