The Hunger Angel
Herta Müller, translated from the German by Philip Boehm
Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt: 292 pp., $26
Fortunately, the Nobel Prize committee for literature has gotten it right when it’s recognized the courageous, sensual complexities of certain writers: William Faulkner, Samuel Beckett, Claude Simon and in 2009 Herta Müller, a Romanian of German origin whose novels about the experience of growing up in communist Romania are a meticulous portrait of the devastating individual physical and mental deformation produced by that system.
Many of Müller’s books are available in English, including “The Land of Green Plums” — one of the single best depictions of exactly how communism succeeded in destroying individuals’ abilities to freely express themselves — and “The Appointment,” which delineated how that intimidation works in practice. Müller’s books are concerned with the particularity of the Romanian experience, and her precise, chiseled vision allows readers to understand what happened in former communist countries and what continues today in countries such as North Korea, Vietnam, China and Cuba.
“The Hunger Angel,” published in 2009, focuses on the forced deportation in early 1945 of Romanians of German origin to labor camps in the Soviet Union as punishment for Romania having been an ally of Nazi Germany.
Müller’s own mother was one of them, deported for five years to such a camp. In 2001, Müller befriended Oskar Pastior, a Romanian poet (also of German origin) then living in western Germany who shared a similar experience to the author’s mother. . Over the years, Müller kept notes about their conversations and intended to write a book with Pastior — but with his sudden death in 2006, she instead decided to write about the experience of a boy much like him.
The details of “The Hunger Angel” are vivid and breathtaking: Müller gives readers the hurried packing of the suitcase for deportation and the harsh construction work in the camps: The constant shoveling of cement, slag and coal, always in the indifferent brutal heat or subzero temperatures. Müller constructs the essentials of camp life, as Leo, her main character, explains about the power of starvation: “Hunger is an object. The angel has climbed into my brain. The angel doesn’t think. He thinks straight. He’s never absent… He lingers in every capillary like quicksilver. First a sweetness in the throat. Then a pressure on my stomach and chest. The fear is too much.”
And when there happens to be food in the camp? “Cabbage soup was our main food,” Leo says, “but it mainly took the meat from our bones and the sanity from our minds. The hunger angel ran around in hysterics… Of course you go on saying HE and SHE but that’s merely a grammatical holdover. Half-starved humans are really neither masculine nor feminine but genderless, like objects.”
So what exactly does life mean in such a place? “The dead are stacked in the back courtyard and shoveled over with snow and left there for a few days until they are frozen hard enough…" Leo recalls. “And then gravediggers… chop up the corpses into pieces so they don’t have to dig a grave, just a hole.”
And if one has books in the camp, which Leo does — he packed four: “Faust,” “Zarathustra” and two of poetry — they have a value one rarely thinks of in normal, ordinary life: “No novels, since you read them once and never again.… I never read the books I brought to the camp.… Then I auctioned them off. For 50 pages of ‘Zarathustra’ cigarette paper I received 1 measure of salt, and 70 pages fetched 1 measure of sugar. For the clothbound ‘Faust’ in its entirety Peter Schiel made me my own lice comb out of tin.”
Two years into his imprisonment, the boy receives a Red Cross postcard from his mother, to which she has attached a photograph of a baby and only the name and date of birth. He concludes: “My parents had a baby because they’ve given up on me. Just as my mother abbreviated born with b, she’ll abbreviate died with d. She’s already done so. Isn’t my mother ashamed of the space below the precisely stitched white thread, below the hand written line, the space in which I can’t help but read: As far as I’m concerned you can die where you are, we’ll have more room at home.”
Although this forced labor camp is now safely in the past, history can still kick a writer and her readers in the head. Just after Müller was awarded the Nobel, it was revealed that for seven years in the 1960s, Pastior had been an informer for the Romanian secret police. According to Müller, he never shared this with her. How a reader understands such information, in the context of this novel, depends on our understanding of the ruthlessness of the communist system: Here was a system that knew that Pastior had been in the work camp, that he was gay (homosexuality was a crime). Müller said at first she felt a sense of anger and then grief over this revelation about Pastior.
“The Hunger Angel” presents a powerful experience, and knowing the subsequent history provides a direct visceral understanding of just how insidious and psychologically devastating was the experience of living in such a camp. It leaves marks that Leo still has in old age: “My steep-sided hollowness, I’m all spooned out, hard-pressed on the outside and empty on the inside ever since I no longer have to go hungry.”
McGonigle is the author of several books, including “Going to Patchogue” and “The Corpse Dream of N. Petkov.”