October 2003

James Purdon

fiction

Hunger by Elise Blackwell

The siege of Leningrad by the German army lasted well over two years, from September 1941 until January 1944, and claimed nearly a million Russian lives. The decision to encircle the city and bring it under siege caused widespread starvation among the inhabitants, leading to social disorder, paranoid bureaucratic witch-hunts and a horrifying death toll.

Elise Blackwell writes a remarkable account of the siege, an even-handed history of individuals, with the attendant refusal to glorify or exaggerate the resilience of those characters, or of the city as a whole. The cover announces Hunger as ‘A Novel’, which seems rather grand. It is really a novella. The book is short, but manages to create wonderful, Kunderaesque effects ruminating on the passage of time and the association of memories.

The unnamed narrator is a scientist, the curator of a collection of rare seeds stored in the Research Institute of Plant Industry in Leningrad. These seeds are not quite food, but ‘mere and wonderful potential’, the rare and aristocratic cousins of those seeds which will be used, in later days, to alleviate the famine by growing vegetables on every patch of open ground in the ruined city. In the unenviable position of protecting seed, pulse and grain of rice in such extreme circumstances, the narrator’s resolve gives way to necessity, his stoicism to justification -- he betrays his calling. In the depths of a ‘hunger winter’, with people stripping bark from trees to chew, he steals and eats small handfuls of rare, raw seed, ‘[j]ust a few kernels of a few kinds, taking nothing too rare, taking the last of no variety’.

With each kernel, the intense texture of rare food (‘the soft pop of millet, the clean chew of teff’) releases the tastes and smells of collecting expeditions, memories giving up their own wonderful potential, the grain becoming a living, sustaining souvenir. A necklace worn by the narrator’s mistress, made from seeds collected in different times, in different countries across the world, represents a crude secular rosary, recalling the names of lost breeds and past visits to the far-off fields of fertile promised lands:

Tohono O’Odham tepary, Zuni Shalako from the Sonoran desert, Quiche fava, Tarahumara chókame from Batophiles Canyon, Chihuahua. Her favorite, hidden behind her hair, was a tan tepary bean with deep blue speckles -- a rare Mayan folkrace.

At the end of the book, the collecting impulse at work is urged by the narrator’s own act of penance or memorial. In the present, in his New York apartment, he reproduces the seeds which, in hunger, he stole and ate in order to survive. Here, he collects them again, not as a sterile scientific exhibit, but in a canning jar, as food:

In the jar, I have reproduced each mouthful of food I stole during the winter of hunger … Unlike the rainbows of seeds and grains I have seen photographed in catalogs, these look more bland than tempting. Together, they do not fill half the jar.

The siege mounted by hunger upon the human body encompasses physical and sexual hunger; the victim is fidelity, both scientific and emotional. Remembering the painful weeks and months of the siege, the narrator’s voice takes on a deep obsession with time, and with the almost unbearably subjective ways in which things crumble or endure. When he marries his wife, Alena, before his affair with Lidia, his retrospective knowledge works strongly on that aspect of his life. His commitment of honesty and fidelity to his ‘strong, perfect wife’, he tells us (with the horrifying resignation of hindsight) lasts ‘more than a year’.

This strangely warped perception of time under siege – a scientific director is convicted and sentenced to death in a meeting which lasts ‘several minutes’ – is chilling when seen through Blackwell’s well-realized characters. When the narrator recalls stories of heroism and of depravity, he inclines towards believing the latter,

the stories about people who did things worse than I did, the stories about people less human (or perhaps more human) than I was. Fragments of pre-war life are sensually evoked within this alien environment where notecards offer ‘a grand piano as payment for half a loaf of bread’, and where half a jar of seeds and grain seem the very stuff of life.

Following the secrets of conscience and the temptations brought on by memory, Blackwell sifts through the histories of her characters, reaching ‘across the populated spaces of time, geography and language… from a comfortable New York apartment to a city once and again called Saint Petersburg'. A work of painstaking fictional recollection, dealing well with subjectivity and desperation Hunger is memorable, personal and well worth reading.

Hunger by Elise Blackwell
Little, Brown
ISBN: 0316738956
144 pages