The Hunger Angel by Herta Müller, transl. Peter Boehm (Granta - Nov, 2012)
The latest novel by the Noble prize winning author Herta Müller is breathtakingly powerful, thought-provoking, poetic, and so beautiful it aches in a part of your body you didn’t know you had, which is why it is hard to put this book down.
Müller tells the story of Leopold Auberg, a Romanian of German origin, caught up in the politics of World War II. He is a prisoner of war, deported by the Russians to a forced-labour camp in 1944 where he spends five years. Like many men and women between the age of seventeen and forty-five he is seen as a Hitler conspirator, even though the Romanian Swabians settled in the Banat region in the 18th century, long before Hitler grew his moustache.
This is the story of Leo’s ordeal, how the young man survived the camp or more precisely it is about his vision of surviving it; his daily hope that one day he will be able to return home. Leo’s narration does not follow a strict chronological order but the experience of his deportation is broken down into precise anecdotes that are assembled to create a narrative arc covering his time in the Soviet Union. Each chapter probes the significance of an object or mundane detail in the camp, for example: a wild weed called Orach, a burgundy scarf, cement, a tin kiss, a bright moment and, above all, the ‘hunger angel’.
Perhaps I should point out that in this story, objects—even abstracts like hunger or boredom—are not always inanimate, while real people often become objectified. In fact Leo sees himself as an object ruled by the hunger angel; it is part of Leo that is separate from him. The angel is like his shadow only more acute and beyond any morality. It dictates the future by controlling thoughts. Another powerful force is boredom which takes on many forms:
I pick it [a cat] up, it weighed practically nothing. This isn’t a cat at all, I told myself, just gray-striped boredom that’s grown fur...
As with Vonnegut’s account of World War II atrocities, it seems that surviving such an experience leaves few stronger and many stranger for it. Clearly a curious logic prevails in the camp which urges Leo to reassess reality:
The cement and the hunger angel are accomplices. Hunger pulls open your pores and crawls in. Once it’s inside, the cement seals them back shut and there you are cemented in.
After he receives a letter from home Leo contemplates:
Tidy and well nourished, she [my mother] pushed her white baby carriage back and forth inside my head.
Leo is not the only one ruled by the hunger angel. From Trudi Pelikan the nurse, to Oswald Enyeter the barber, to Kati Sentry the feebleminded girl who doesn’t know where she is; everyone is subject to the angel’s power. All, that is, except Tur Prikulitsch, the supervisor, and his reluctant mistress Bea Zakel who thrive by depriving others of their entitlements.
Leo learns new ways of doing things:
... you should never start to cry if you have too many reasons to do so.
Now that the days are getting warmer, even if we don’t have any food we can put our hunger in the sun and warm it up.
But of course it dawns on Leo that even the end of the war, even the end of imprisonment will not set him free. Deep down Leo knows that after experiencing such overwhelming suffering he reached a point of no return. He is a pragmatic and meticulous narrator hence his descriptions come across as only too real. Despite the fact that deprivation and futile malice are the condiment of his daily chores there is little sentimentality. Instead of accusation there is a sense of disbelief or sombre bewilderment. He keeps blaming homesickness for the way he feels, not the guards or the lice or the working conditions or injustice.
After Leo’s release from the Russian camp he is still a captive of his memories; alienated and ostracised by society. His prolonged suffering is partly due to the fact that many blame him for his German ethnicity, partly because he can not communicate the unspeakable adequately, and partly because, as it happens, Leo is now persecuted for his homosexual orientation. Indeed, after his return home the camp remains in his head and he finds it everywhere he goes. On moving into an apartment in Bucharest he states:
The number of our building was 68, like the number of bunks in the barrack.
If this novel feels emotionally authentic it is probably because Herta Müller’s mother spent five years in a Russian labour camp due to similar circumstances. It seems that, like many survivors, Herta Müller’s mother spoke little of her tribulations. Even so the author clearly picked up on the intensity of her mother’s silence. In regard to the main body of the novel Herta Müller collaborated with the late Romanian poet and ex-camp-inmate Oskar Pastior. According to her afterword the two writers met regularly between 2001 and 2006 to exchange ideas for this book.
The depth of detail that makes up Leo’s world is certainly startling but there i`s no doubt that Herta Müller’s imagination and unique ability to raise words to a higher plane of meaning are always present. Her extraordinary command of language is not based on an excess of four syllable words or wild syntax, but on the way basic concepts are worked and reworked to give them a memorable effect. Reading Herta Müller is like watching someone reassemble a Rubik’s Cube; the same colour shifting and contorting until the overall picture emerges. Someone might mistake this intensity of observation for ‘overwriting’ but there is no repetition. Instead each idea is examined with agonising care until it is a work of art. The process seems simple and complex at once—as Leonardo Da Vinci said—simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.