Elise Blackwell


(Reviewed by Mary Whipple JUN 18, 2003)

"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…."

Hunger by Elise Blackwell

From his home in New York, an elderly man, whose name we never know, looks back on his life in the Soviet Union, remembering the physical and moral agonies he experienced during the Siege of Leningrad. Like other survivors of near-death experiences, who "must send their stories on words…like small leaky boats," he tells us about his actions during the siege and tries to come to terms with them. More "literary" than factual, this account of the siege is not a long recitation of the details of starvation and the extremes to which people will go to stay alive. It is, instead, a spare and finely crafted story of moral choices, decisions, and the essence of life and death, issues of epic proportion handled beautifully within the short space of 133 pages.

Read excerptIn Leningrad in the fall of 1941, as the Nazis surround the city, readying for the siege which will ultimately last 900 days and cost nearly a million lives, the unnamed speaker and his wife are celebrating their anniversary with a sumptuous meal of crab legs, caviar, and wine. The speaker knows the city is about to face privation, but, he explains, "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." He and his wife Alena are both botanists at the Research Institute of Plant Industry, the goal of which has been to collect seed and plant specimens, hundreds of thousands of them, from all over the world so that they can be preserved from extinction.

When the siege begins, a hasty meeting is called by one of the several dozen scientists working at the institute to discuss the preservation of the collections there, including several hundred tubers, which could, conceivably, feed the city's hungry people. "We will not eat from the collections.…We will protect them at all cost," one scientist pronounces, and debate begins, with Alena, the speaker's wife, bravely defending the preservation of the collection and the speaker himself concealing his "meek objections to the noble plan."

The speaker is not sure whether the eventual decision to save the collection is really one of moral bravery and intellectual courage on the part of the scientists, or if it is purely the result of naivete. He wonders, for example, if Vitalii, one of the strongest supporters of the resolution, would have been "the staunchest advocate of martyrdom, our standard-bearer, had he known he would not only die but die first of all?" As for his own desire to use the collection for food, if necessary, he says, "If I am a coward, then what I fear are my own thoughts. And my own thoughts were precisely what cold and hunger delivered to me. Brave of body and weak of mind, yes, and alive to think about it."

With vibrant sense impressions expressed in spare prose, Blackwell creates a mood which shows the rapid deterioration of conditions. She increases the tension in successive paragraphs by switching back and forth between sharply contrasting images. In an early recollection, for example, the speaker talks about sharing the "deeply earthy taste and sublime color [of a] particular species of Peruvian blue potato," with his lover Lidia, then feeding her, while "licking salt and oil from each other's fingers and the corners of each other's mouths." In the next paragraph, he observes, "The pipes froze in Leningrad [in September, and] we had for washing only muddy Neva water, carried by hand in pails." By late November people are so hungry that no one thinks it strange when someone offers a grand piano in exchange for half a loaf of bread.

As the desperation born of the siege grows and, one by one, the scientists at the institute die of starvation, the speaker continues to fantasize about food and the trips he's made around the world, gathering seed specimens for the institute's collection, finding new grains, and also eating fruit and sharing exotic meals at far-flung locations. Always attractive to other women, the speaker's memories of foods are often associated with his lovers on these trips. In Nicaragua he finds a melon different from any he's ever seen, and devours it with his wife Alena, who is four months pregnant and just regaining her appetite. With his lover Iskra, he dines on "pelmeni and good wine and meat and cherry pies" in Prague, then makes love to her. In Djibouti he spends the night with a beautiful Somali girl, then attends a banquet with the Emperor, dining on "orange squash in coconut milk, mashed eggplant, raw marinated beef, lentils, mixed simmered greens, chicken-and-egg stew." And with his lover Lidia, he eats the blue potatoes.

The association of food and sex is a natural one here, as is the parallel association of fruitfulness and barrenness, and Blackwell fully develops these intense images throughout the novel. Seeds, fertility, propagation, new life, and the saving of species, both through the preservation of the institute's collections and the birth of children, fill this short novel with imagery and make the overwhelming urge for food during times of extreme starvation akin to the urge for sex during better times. It is not surprising, in view of the speaker's lack of fidelity to his wife, that, in desperation, he eventually succumbs to the temptation of eating seeds while guarding the institute's resources. He feels in retrospect, however, that "during the hunger winter, I was justified to take what I needed, and I barely took more….I [was] willing to do more to save my life than some of those who had died--a trait that made me neither better nor worse than any other man or woman." Though he feels some sadness and regret for what he's done, when others have made the supreme sacrifice, he does not feel remorse--he was overcome by the desire to live and has lived to make new contributions toward feeding the world.

Blackwell widens the perspective and gives universality and even epic strength to this short novel by making numerous references to ancient Babylon, as the speaker comments about life and values and the similarities and differences between Babylon and Leningrad during the siege. In one surprising, climactic moment, when a main character is dying of starvation, the speaker's thoughts turn to the lush hanging gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. In another instance, we learn that barley was the preferred currency for all trade in Babylon, just as food has become the only currency of importance in Leningrad. And in Babylon, the place of the dead is described as "a place where dust is nourishment, and clay is food," something that became literally true in Leningrad during the siege.

Although this novel is short (and might, more properly, be considered a novella), it deals with big subjects and important themes, and it does so with great delicacy and precision. Every image is perfect, not a word is wasted, and no extraneous details get in the way of the story to hide the well-developed and multi-leveled themes. The details of this siege, in which almost a million people died, are limited to what one man experiences--nothing is added for shock effect or to stir the reader's emotions. The reader supplies all the emotion based on situations and scenes which are presented factually and without elaborate description, though the emotion is enhanced through the author's juxtaposition of contrasting scenes--scenes of plenty with want, beauty with ugliness, fruitfulness with barrenness, starvation with love, and honesty with pragmatism. It's a stunning novel, fully satisfying despite its small size, and anyone who admires the careful orchestration of a very good story should take great pleasure in this small gem.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 13 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Hunger at MostlyFiction.com

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About the Author:

Elise BlackwellElise Blackwell was born in Austin, Texas in 1964 and grew up in southern Louisiana. Her parents were both botanists.

She has worked as a journalist, instructor, freelance writer, and translator. She earned an MFA in writing from the University of California at Irvine where she studied with Pulitzer-Prize winning author Michael Chabon.

She is an Assistant Professor in the Graduate English program at the University of South Carolina.

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