Hoffman's Hunger Paperback – Oct 1 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
The pressures of politics and philosophy bring a Dutch diplomat to crisis in this 1990 novel that examines the ways internal angst plays out against external forces. Capping off an erratic career in the foreign service, Felix Hoffman lands in Prague a few months before the 1989 Velvet Revolution, his new position as ambassador promising a cushy ride into retirement. Steeped in stale grief over the loss of his two daughters—one to leukemia, one to a heroin overdose—that spurred an escalating estrangement from his wife, Marian, Hoffman wallows in gluttony and self-destruction. As he works his way through the contents of his refrigerator, he finds temporary respite in Spinoza's Treatise. Excerpts from this work require close attention, and the philosopher's notions of aligning perception, impressions and intuition highlight Hoffman's existential weariness. The story takes on a snappy pace as the era's political turmoil comes to the fore and a slew of subplots begin to coalesce: American tourist Freddy Mancini witnesses a kidnapping that later requires the involvement of John Marks, a CIA agent with romantic and espionage ties to Hoffman's wife; Czech journalist Irena Nová befriends Hoffman, but has her own twisted motivations; and Wim Scheffers, a higher-up in the Dutch diplomatic hierarchy, tries to shepherd along Hoffman's career to a respectable close. De Winter's original slant on a straightforward plot of Eastern bloc intrigue creates a resonant portrait of a conflicted man in a conflicted era. (Nov.)
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
I had immediate empathy with every major player in the novel, but most of all with Felix Hoffman. There does not seem to be anything overtly likable about Felix but he is fascinating. Hoffman and the other characters face physical and emotional pain caused by poor decisions in the past. Most try to reduce the pain that affects them and their loved ones with inappropriately behaviors (eating, drinking, adultery, drugs). Only Felix makes serious attempts to understand his past actions, to reach insight. Spinoza's writing teaches Hoffman that free will does not allow him to escape the past or the determinism of his nature. It can only show him why he acted as he did and what desires persist in the present. Attempting to satisfy his insatiable appetite for food and drink does not help, but reading Spinoza's work does. As a result, he discovers that simply reminiscing during sleepless nights provides no answers. He has to learn to think rationally about his past and present. He has to abandon his habitual irrational cynicism and indifference in order to understand the truth about his own motivation.
This is an outstanding novel and I look forward to reading more of de Winter's work. His realistic writing style and detailed character development remind me of the work of Robert Musil, the 20th Century Austrian novelist. There are interesting parallels between Musil's character Ulrich, a mathematician, in The Man Without Qualities (1952, 1978) and Felix Hoffman a diplomat in de Winter's novel. Both characters are charismatic but unsatisfied with their career roles and personal relationships. Both are attempting to find some truths in their lives without falling back on ready-made conclusions based on religious faith. How can we ever understand the relative importance of ideas, actions, and emotions in individual lives when there is no meaningful starting point? Both Ulrich and Felix discover the origin of their own motivation in a concept that is both rational and irrational, that includes reality and imagination, hedonism and altruism.