Hungerby Elise Blackwell
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Scouring the world’s most remote fields and valleys, a dedicated Soviet scientist has spent his life collecting rare plants for his country’s premiere botanical institute in Leningrad. From Northern Africa to Afghanistan, from South America to Abyssinia, he has sought and saved seeds that could be traced back to the most ancient civilizations. And the adventure has set deep in him. Even at home with the wife he loves, the memories of his travels return him to the beautiful women and strange foods he has known in exotic regions.
When German troops surround Leningrad in the fall of 1941, he becomes a captive in the siege. As food supplies dwindle, residents eat the bark of trees, barter all they own for flour, and trade sex for food. In the darkest winter hours of the siege, the institute’s scientists make a pact to leave untouched the precious storehouse of seeds that they believe is the country’s future. But such a promise becomes difficult to keep when hunger is grows undeniable.
Based on true events from World War II, Hunger is a private story about a man wrestling with his own morality. This beautiful debut novel ask us what is the meaning of integrity
“As a first novel, Hunger stands on its own:
a finely angled vision into hell, a spare portrait of the banality of survival.”
“A striking debut
a wrenching existential drama that Blackwell handles
with spare prose and abundant compassion.”Elle
“A riveting fictional account, based on real events... a poignant look at a wrenching period of history.”Chicago Tribune
“An exquisite little book . . . Blackwell craftily weaves history and botany through this utterly devourable narrative . . . a multicolored treat.”Los Angeles Times
“A remarkable, fact-based story of heroism and self-sacrifice under the harshest of war’s privations [and] of the desperate will to survive. . . . The prose of Hunger is terse, stripped to essentials, but it produces a lilting, nearly poetic quality. The detail is exacting and freshly presented. . . . A compelling exploration of the moral chasm that war can create.” Bookpage
“In Elise Blackwell’s original and engrossing short novel, Leningrad during the German siege forms the background for an exploration of love and betrayal, as well as for some richly sensual evocations of the pleasures of eating.”J.M. Coetzee, Booker Prize winning author of Disgrace
and Life and Times of Michael K
“All the more chilling for its poetic economy, HUNGER captures a sweeping catastrophe through one man’s tale of belated conscience. It is a haunting reminder that history has no mercy, that no matter how lofty our circumstances or our ideals, we may be tested terribly at any moment by the times in which we live.”Julie Glass, author of Three Junes
“An eccentric, courageous and poetic study of human beings in extremis.”
Julia Blackburn, author of The Leper’s Companions and Old Man Goya
“...a lucid, serene style, which contrasts with her grim subject matter and increases its nightmarish quality .a profoundly disturbing reality.”Wall Street Journal
“Insightful and gripping... Hunger examines both the limitations and the possibilities of the human character... Fascinating.”San Francisco Chronicle
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Read an Excerpt
By Elise Blackwell
Little, Brown and Co.Copyright © 2003 Elise Blackwell
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIt is not so uncommon for those near the end of their lives to run their mind's hand over the contours of those lives. Perhaps that is all that I do here as I reach across the populated spaces of time, geography, and language, reach from a comfortable New York apartment to a city once and again called Saint Petersburg.
* * *
The anniversary of our wedding day fell on the last of the early summer's white nights, and I could still believe that we would be fine. We dined at a restaurant that had been better a few years earlier but was still very good. Our window overlooked the Neva. The Peter and Paul Fortress lifted from the center of the river. Its bastion tilted slightly over the water, seeming more precarious than fortified, pointing askew to a sky more bright than light, a sky the creamy white color of the anona tree's sweet custard apple.
Alena's voice floated lighter on the air than it had in a year, and we ate well, sucking the delicate saltiness from the leg casings of huge crabs, spooning caviar directly into our mouths and sliding it down our throats with a white-grape wine that was just too sweet but good nonetheless.
I kept the check from Alena. She believed that the loss of her salary and the approach of Hitlerite Germany's young soldiers meant that we should hold tight to our money. Like the smell of rain before drops hit the skin, the coming war told me to spend, to have whatever I could now, before it could no longer be had. It would be later that I would learn to hoard crumbs like a miser.
I desired to go straight home and make love to the only woman I was allowing myself, the only one I really wanted. But Alena had heard on the radio the poet Vera Inber, whose account of the long days and nights ahead would secure her fame and favor, and wished to attend a reading she was giving.
We walked along Nevsky Prospect, which had widened with the crowds out to enjoy the last night of the year when the sun would go to the horizon but no lower. I held Alena close, by her arm, and then closer, my arm around her waist.
Every fabricated thing in Leningrad, from the antique ornaments atop monument gates to the nouveau wire poles, pointed upward, elegant, futile.
The small hall where the reading was held was full and very hot and smoky, something I would savor often in memory but did not enjoy at the time.
I remember few of Vera Inber's words. But those of the reputationless poet who preceded her have remained long with me. Tall and sturdy, he had been a sailor before he seized a pen. He appeared hale on first glance, but the gray folded into his face and the depth and yellow of his eyes gave away some disease of the internal organs.
He read several poems, none of them particularly to my taste, in a strong voice that was decidedly more naval than poetic. The last is the one I remember. It was called "The Shipwreck Survivor." I offer it now to begin my own story.
I never saw the poem on paper, so I do not know how the sailor-turned-poet broke his lines. But I recall each word as spoken:
"The ones who drown never change the facts, but those who survive the sea in their lungs must send their stories on words, words like small leaky boats, across the distance, cold, and currents of that water."
* * *
The volunteers of the opolchenia, including my Alena but not myself, scurried like rodents. Shelters appeared, and trenches. Young women pierced their skin wrapping barbed wire around obstacles built to prevent tanks from penetrating the city. We all waited for the attack and prepared to defend our city block by block, building by building, hand to hand.
But the tanks never rolled in. They stopped outside the city, and how much simpler it would have been had they kept coming.
* * *
In early September, the first Hitlerite shells descended - graceful and even hesitant from their high loft. Then Junkers rose and fell, rose and fell, leaving behind deposits of incendiaries like so much fatal silt.
When they hit the Badayev warehouses, the cramped lines of wooden buildings burned fast, and the fats stored within their boards radiated red heat, turning the close sky to embers and filling the air like summer cooking.
What did not burn were a few thousand tons of sugar, which instead melted through the floor planks to survive, shaped and imprinted by the cellars, as a hard candy. This candy was broken into chips that would be prized and sold for money and sex in the months that followed.
But so much would be passed off and paid for as food.
* * *
Among the many thousands of specimens housed at the institute were several hundred tubers. Small and large. Smooth and warty. White, brown, yellow, purple, and blue. Lidia, my longtime sometime lover, had helped collect the blue potatoes on an expedition to Ecuador and Peru. I had, against my preference, stayed in Leningrad with Alena.
Lidia collected more than the institute needed, and when she returned, we spent an afternoon in her apartment, peeling, cutting, frying, and feeding the blue chips to each other, licking salt and oil from each other's fingers and the corners of each other's mouths.
Among its many fine qualities, in addition to its deeply earthy taste and sublime color, that particular species of Peruvian blue potato is resistant to the potato blight that starved a million Irish men, women, and children.
* * *
Heat was gone by the end of September, and all the pipes in Leningrad froze. Until the snow came, we had for washing only muddy Neva water, carried by hand in pails.
* * *
When we made the decision not to eat the obvious, it was not made all at once but by something like attrition. But it was formalized at a particular moment of a particular day. Before that, we could have still backed away, allowed our unofficial resolve to erode.
Efrosinia was known well throughout the institute only for her brilliance. I could not have told you if she was married or single, where she had been born, nor how she spent her leisure. She was a woman of few extraneous words.
Only once had I seen her verbally agitated - happily so, over research results that were better than she had dared to hope. She had reported them to me rapidly, even breathlessly. When she stopped speaking, it was abrupt. She tucked some loose hair behind her ear, looked up at me from that cut angle, turned, and walked away. It was the only time I had seen her speak unnecessarily.
Some months later, when the findings that had so animated Efrosinia appeared in the very best international journal and caused a stir across the Atlantic, she said nothing but acknowledged our congratulations with only a nod.
So it was surprising, to say the least, that she called a meeting - invited everyone. She invited those of us who had been at the institute with the great director, and she invited the horrid blend of libelers, quacks, opportunists, and mere quietists who had come in since.
And everyone came, nearly filling our large conference room. Efrosinia said what we had been saying tentatively to one another. "We will not eat from the collections, then. We will protect them at all cost."
Efrosinia spoke no more that day. It was others who debated, though the debate was less than I might have thought, less than I might have wanted. Perhaps I wished for a loud din of opposing voices in which to conceal my meek objections to the noble plan. I said nothing.
My Alena spoke briefly in favor of the plan. Vitalii spoke elegantly and - the only one to do so - at length. Even then we all knew that he would be the first to die.
It was not that he was the smallest or weakest. Indeed he was tall and as hardened off as a plant that had never known the indoors. He had been an alpine skier of some renown and had taken an Olympic medal and other awards during the 1920s. He still had the great, wide shoulders, and now, in middle age, plenty of extra pounds around his once athletic waist.
We knew that Vitalii would be the first to die - not, as I have said, because he was the slightest or most vulnerable, not because he had the fewest stores. We knew because it was plain on his face, as plain as the square outside in the bright winter sun on one of Leningrad's thirty-five cloudless days, plain for all but him to see.
Would he have been so brave and clear in our deliberations, the staunchest advocate of martyrdom, our standard-bearer, had he known he would not only die but die first of all? No, I believed then and believe even now.
But Vitalii and Efrosinia and, yes, my Alena, carried that day.
Excerpted from Hunger by Elise Blackwell Copyright © 2003 by Elise Blackwell
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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two-time Booker prize-winning author of Youth and Disgrace
Meet the Author
Elise Blackwell is the author of three previous novels: Hunger, The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish, and Grub. Her books have been chosen for numerous best of the year” lists and her short prose has be published in Witness, Topic, Seed, and other publications. Originally from southern Louisiana, she earned her MFA from the University of California-Irvine and is on the creative writing faculty of the University of South Carolina.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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In the 1930s and early 1940s biologist and geneticist Nikolai Vavilov traveled the world as a highly regarded scientist seeking rare plants. He worked out of an experimental Leningrad botanical 'institute' when he wasn¿t searching the world for specimens. He cherished his wife, but enjoyed making love to other women too. In other words he enjoyed life.................... In 1942, the Hitlerite Nazis surround the city leading to dramatic food shortages. Though starving and ailing, the scientists vow to protect their rare specimens of seed, grains, and tubers. While seemingly all adhere to the pact including Nikolai¿s wife Alena, he breaks the pledge. Nikolai nibbles at the specimens, which saves his life. Those who kept the pledge, including Alena, die. He wonders if cowardice saved his life or if he even should be classified a coward....................... Readers will feel 1942 Stalingrad as the story line provides a powerful look at the impact of the siege as much as it furbishes depth to genetic botany. Nikolai is an interesting character when he admits he failed his peers. When he rationalizes his behavior, the novel loses some momentum towards fulfilling its basic theme of surviving at any cost. Still this is an intriguing historical biographical fiction......... Harriet Klausner
Blackwell unfolds the drama with quiet precision, and engulfs the reader with gripping illuminations.
Although this book begins with a compelling premise and amazing setting, the overall effort left me cold and disappointed. Set in WW2 during the siege of Leningrad, a plant geneticist steals seeds from his laboratory's collections to survive. However, the tone of the book is flat and unemotional. Characters are 2-dimensional and completely undeveloped. Of course, how much development could possibly occur in a book that is only 144 pages long, and that's with generous margins and spacing. There's certainly something to be said for being concise and to-the-point, but I read this book in about 2 hours and felt cheated. I hope future efforts from this author do more with such a promising tableau.