The Hunger Angel, the new novel from 2009 Nobel Prize winner Herta Müller, is the harrowing story a young German youth of 17 and his five year imprisonment in a Soviet labor camp after the end of WWII. Although Leo Auberg and his family have been living in Romania and seem to have played little if any role in the German war effort other than perhaps acts of omission, the boy and a number of others in his town are rounded up for deportation. Neither he nor any of the others know why they have been selected; all he knows is that he is on the Russian’s list and that’s all there is to it.
As he prepares to leave, he even imagines the deportation might turn out to be a good thing. He is gay, and recently he has begun engaging in dangerous liaisons with a growing succession of men. He is worried about his family discovering the truth. He is worried about getting caught and punished. He even feels some excitement at the thought of leaving his “thimble of town, where every stone had eyes.” Instead of feeling fear as he waits for the patrol to come pick him up, he is impatient to be gone. In a typical case of be careful what you wish for, it doesn’t take long for him to learn his error.
The novel then goes on to describe the horrors of life in the camp. It is the typical nightmarish vision readers have come to expect from the gulag narrative genre, and if it doesn’t quite measure up to the atrocities of the Nazi death camps, it isn’t for want of trying. Müller explains in an Afterword that her mother spent five years in one of the camps and much of material about life in the camps came from conversations with other former deportees from her village. She was especially indebted to the poet Oscar Pastior for accounts of his experiences. For while, it seems they had planned to write the book together, but his death in 2006 left her on her own.
Inevitably there will be those who find themselves evaluating The Hunger Angel in the context of the Holocaust. It will be difficult to sympathize with German suffering, even when those Germans were not active participants in the Nazi war crimes. Leo notes that the Jews in his little town were disappearing, but he has no real thoughts about it, nor does he ever talk about it while describing his own hardships. Indeed, after mentioning Jews at the very beginning of the book, he never mentions them again. Of course, the fact that there may have been a greater evil doesn’t mean that a lesser evil is insignificant. Evil is evil, and all evil should be exposed. Suffering is suffering: there is no need to compete for who suffers the most.
What makes Müller’s novel special is poetic voice she gives to Augberg as he fills his lined notebooks with the details of life in the camp. Everyday objects become magical forces, some to be feared, some embraced. The heart shaped shovel, a silk scarf, an old woman’s gift of a handkerchief: these and many others assume mystical proportions. The slag Leo works with, the weeds they scrounge to supplement their watery soup, the lice that infest their hair and clothes: they become the obsessions of life. Life becomes little more than a formula: “1 shovel load = 1gram bread.”
Lording over all life in the camp is the hunger angel, a personification of the dominant role hunger plays in their suffering. If hunger is an angel, it is an angel like Satan was an angel. It is a demonic figure that haunts each and everyone in the camp individually and collectively. It gets husbands to steal food from their wives; men to steal bread. It dehumanizes its victims. What may even be worse, it never lets go of its victims. Freedom from the camp is not freedom from the hunger angel. In a larger sense it represents more than the basic hunger for food–it represents the hunger for life, and no matter how harsh the circumstances, there is a hunger to keep living. The hunger angel is a life force that pushes you and mocks you.
Philip Boehm, the novel’s translator, says that “it has been Herta Müller’s special calling to find words for the displacement of the soul among victims of totalitarianism.” In The Hunger Angel she has couched that displacement in the hallucinatory language of almost mystical vision. Boehm’s translation is the language of poetry; it is a style that demands as much time with eyes away from the page thinking, as actually reading the words. It is a style that will reward that thought.