Hoff­man’s Hunger

Leon De Win­ter; Arnold and Eri­ca Pomer­ans, trans.
  • Review
By – February 24, 2012

Nov­el­ist, polit­i­cal activist, essay­ist, and some­time movie direc­tor Leon deWin­ter wrote this mys­tery-spy thriller-philo­soph­i­cal nov­el in 1990. It became a huge suc­cess in Europe and was sub­se­quent­ly trans­lat­ed from the orig­i­nal Dutch into Eng­lish for Amer­i­can audiences. 

It is inter­est­ing that the author chose Baruch Spin­oza as the philo­soph­i­cal thread that ties togeth­er the oth­er var­i­ous, and some­what dis­parate, themes of the nov­el. Just what do Spin­oza, infi­deli­ty, the Holo­caust, polit­i­cal intrigue, bulim­ia, alco­holism, and obses­sive com­pul­sive dis­or­der have to do with one another? 

Felix Hoff­man, the overeat­ing pro­tag­o­nist, reads Spin­oza as both an intel­lec­tu­al escape from his trou­bled life, and in search of some for­mu­la of what it means to expe­ri­ence hap­pi­ness. Spin­oza was cut off from his com­mu­ni­ty for his rad­i­cal ideas about the nature of God, and rather than sub­mit to the author­i­ty of the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, chose a lone­ly path of intel­lec­tu­al pur­suit for the truth.” Felix, a Holo­caust sur­vivor who was hid­den by Chris­tians, has lit­tle to do with his own Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, by his own choice, after the dis­cov­ery that his par­ents per­ished in the camps. His wife Mar­i­an becomes, for him, the ulti­mate hap­pi­ness and more so when she gives him twin daugh­ters, Miri­am and Esther. Felix has found in life what Spin­oza writes of in his trea­tise, but it is not to last long. The death of young Esther from child­hood leukemia, fol­lowed years lat­er by the sui­cide of her twin, Miri­am, ends all hope of last­ing hap­pi­ness for Felix and Mar­i­on. They both are unfaith­ful in their mar­riage, unable to bear the pain of los­ing their children. 

Mar­i­an, a schol­ar, pours her efforts into research­ing and writ­ing a book that will nev­er be fin­ished. And Felix eats to fill the void that will nev­er be filled from the loss of his daugh­ters. His career as a diplo­mat has not been filled with promise and he puts it in even greater jeop­ardy by an ill-advised affair with a dou­ble agent as a last attempt to find hap­pi­ness, or to fill the hunger in his soul that will not be sated. 

There are plot turns and twists, revealed con­nec­tions between peo­ple that will bring the book to an ulti­mate cli­max of redemp­tion and in some mea­sure, hap­pi­ness for Felix Hoff­man, his hunger for food replaced by a sense of con­tent­ment, which may be what the ulti­mate hap­pi­ness is for all of us.

Bar­bara Andrews holds a Mas­ters in Jew­ish Stud­ies from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go, has been an adult Jew­ish edu­ca­tion instruc­tor, and works in the cor­po­rate world as a pro­fes­sion­al adult educator.

Discussion Questions