The Great Optimist

Commentary: The Great Hunger by Johan Bojer

The Norwegian writer, Johan Bojer (pronounced Bo-yer) is probably best known for his 1925 novel, The Emigrants, about a family of Norwegians making their way in the desolate plains of 1880's North Dakota. This book should not be confused with Swedish writer, Vilmelm Moberg's initial volume of his epic series chronicling the history of Swedish settlers in America (which was adapted for the screen by Ingemar Bergman). Bojer's book was more personal and optimistic. Optimism, in fact, is a quality of many of Bojer's books. It was a quality of literature which fell out of favor, at least in America, after the stock market crash of 1929. However, at his  peak, Bojer was lauded by many of his contemporaries including James Branch Cabell, Rabindranath Tagore, and John Galsworthy.

<<Thar be Spoilers!>>
At the beginning of The Great Hunger, Bojer's 1918 effort, Peer Troen, a motherless, but industrious child, along with his three buddies, Klaus, Peter, and Martin, take a keel out on the fjord to fish. Although in a small row boat, they struggle to haul in a great Greenland shark. In the chaos that ensues, the shark, thrashing and wounded, manages to grab hold of Peer's arm, but Peter swiftly thrusts a knife into the beast, killing it and in turn saving Peer's limb. This scene may serve as a sort of foreshadowing for the rest of Peer's life.

Peer, much like his creator, Bojer, is raised in a  series of poor foster homes in rural Norway. After his real father dies, and Peer (Holm now; he's changed his surname to his father's), feeling the need to grieve, is driven away from the funeral, he searches out his half sister, Louise, and brings her to stay with him at his flat. He is already a protector at the young age of 16. After some early misfortune, Peer is able to attend a top engineering college. It is there that he discovers his great hunger for knowledge, the call of the "steel" and the "fire", that drives him through his early career as a master engineer. After graduation, Peer forms a strong bond in both friendship and business with his old pal Klaus and his newly found step brother, Ferdinand Holm. It is Peer's great desire for knowledge, and to contribute to the advancement of mankind, that leads him to Egypt as an integral cog in the engineering of the Old Aswan Dam. But when he returns, a successful and much wealthier man, he's confronted by Langberg, an old college chum. They speak of the state of technology as it existed then. Langberg says:
"Lord! What I'd like to know is, where mankind are making for, that they're in such a hurry"
Peer replies:
"That the Nile Barage has doubled the production of corn in Egypt -- created the possibilities of life for millions of human beings -- is that nothing?"
Langberg follows:
"My good fellow, do you really think there aren't enough fools on this earth already. Have we too little wailing and misery and discontent and class hatred as it is? Why must we go about to double it?"
It takes a while, but Peer comes to understand Langberg's pre-humanistic philosophy. He marries, has three children, and flourishes on a large farm. But soon the sirens of the steel and fire are calling to him again. Then in a series of questionable decisions, he crashes, losing everything; the shark of his boyhood is back in the boat. That Peer never loses sight of his "great hunger" when that shark latches on again, but rather adapts to it and moves spiritually onward and upward, is testament to the optimistic view taken by the author; a view that had fallen out of favor in his day; a view we would do well to hold in a nobler esteem during these volatile times.

~Book Jones~  4.5 stars