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kuboaa

I lay a while looking into the darkness, a thick massive darkness without end that I wasn't able to fathom. My thoughts couldn't grasp it. It struck me as excessively dark and I felt its presence as oppressive. I closed my eyes, began to sing in an undertone, and tossed back and forth in the bunk to distract myself, but it was no use. The darkness had taken possession of my thoughts and didn't leave me alone for a moment. What if I myself were to be dissolved into darkness, made one with it? I sit up in bed and flail my arms.

(...)

Suddenly I snap my fingers several times and laugh. What the hell was this! Ha! I imagined I had found a new word. I sit up in bed and say, It doesn't exist in the language, I have invented it - Kuboaa. It does have letters like a word - Christ, man, you have invented a word... Kuboaa... of great grammatical importance.

The word stood out sharply against the darkness before me.

I sit with open eyes, amazed at my find and laughing for joy. Then I start whispering: they might be spying on me, and I intended to keep my invention a secret. I had passed over into the sheer madness of hunger; I was empty and without pain and my thoughts were running riot. I debate with myself in silence. With the oddest jumps in my line of thought, I try to ascertain the meaning of my new word. It didn't have to mean either God or amusement park, and who said it should mean cattle show? I clench my fist angrily and repeat once more, Who said that it shall mean cattle show? All things considered, it wasn't even necessary that it should mean padlock or sunrise. It wasn't difficult to make sense of such a word. I would wait and see. Meanwhile I would sleep on it.

- Knut Hamsun, from 'Hunger' (1890, in the translation by Sverre Lyngstad).

This is only the beginning of the narrator's long sleepless night trying to fend off the darkness and figure out what his newly invented word should and shouldn't mean. And this in turn is only a small episode in the ongoing, disturbing delirium of hunger that leads him through euphorically lucid highs and desperate, paranoid lows in the space of minutes.

Make no mistake though, this is not a Dickensian poverty victim or even a Dostoevskyan penitent, but a modern, 20th century hero on a perverse hunger trip that he brings upon himself willfully, defiantly. As Paul Auster puts it in his introduction, 'The Art of Hunger', his irrational behavior seems to come "from some inner compulsion, as if to wage a hunger strike against himself".

Mind and body have been weakened; the hero has lost control over both his thought and actions. And yet he persists in trying to control his destiny. This is the paradox, the game of circular logic that is played out through the pages of the book. It is an impossible situation for the hero. For he has willfully brought himself to the brink of danger. To give up starving would not mean victory, it would simply mean that the game was over. He wants to survive, but only on his own terms: survival that will bring him face to face with death.

And in the same impossibly proud way he will use language - and invent secret words like kuboaa - strictly on his own terms.

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