The Hunger Angel by Herta Müller is a novel set in a Soviet forced labor camp after World War II, translated from the original German. Ms. Müller won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Literature.
Leo Auberg is 17 when he is picked up for a five-year sentence serving in a Soviet forced labor camp. The laborers get minimal food and “exercise” aplenty.
Leo shovels coal, hauls mortar, and does other difficult jobs but the one constant among all his suffering is hunger. While his former life keeps flashing back to him and the hope that he might return to what could or could no longer be his home and family keeps Leo alive, his imagination is what gives him hope.
The Hunger Angel begins in 1945, when the Soviet Union demanded that all Romanian Germans aged 17 to 45 years of age be relocated to forced labor camps to help rebuild the devastated nation. According to the author’s note at the end of the book, Müller spent many hours talking to poet Oskar Pastior, who suffered under the decree. Müller filled four notebooks with Mr. Pastior’s testimony until 2006, when he suddenly passed away.
This is an extraordinary book about the hardships the German people faced after the war, as Leo Auberg, the protagonist states:
“To this day, the hunger angel speaks out of your mouth. But no matter what he says, this remains utterly clear: 1 shovel load = 1 gram bread.”
I certainly got the distinct feeling that the book was written by a poet, not so much the narrative as the reflections of Leo. While hunger is certainly the common denominator of the book, Leo’s imagination is what keeps him going through starvation and hard labor.
The 64 chapters in this book are very short yet vivid, some a few sentences long, and are tied together only by the few recurring characters and even fewer stringed events.
The book itself is a quick read and well written, the translation by Philip Boehm is brilliant and really brings forward the “hunger angel” himself, a spirit which hovers over Leo and interrupts the few moments in which he forgets his grim existence.
While I found the book an excellent read, it wasn’t the style I’m used to reading. However, I’m glad I read it since I did enjoy the experience and, I believe, it made me a better reader.