IN JANUARY 1945, the Russians demanded that all Romanian Germans between 17 and 45 be relocated to labour camps in the Soviet Union to rebuild the devastated country.
Nobel laureate Herta Müller’s mother was sent there for five years. Half a century later, Muller spent many hours talking with another Romanian victim of that decree, the poet Oskar Pastior. She planned a book with him until he died, suddenly, in 2006. “A year passed before I could bring myself to say farewell to the We and write a novel alone,” Muller explains in the book’s afterword.
The book follows a 17-year-old named Leo Auberg to the labour camp where he works himself to the bone shovelling coal. His fellow workers drift in and out of his life, scarcely more vivid than his memories and imagined encounters with his parents and grandparents.
Indeed, the power of Leo’s imagination is the secret both of his survival and of Muller’s novel. There is no narrative here: instead we have Leo’s brilliant poetic ruminations as he gets through each day. They are what holds him to life and us to this book.
The novel is divided into 64 small chapters, some only a few lines long. This removes the sting of the endless descriptions and our expectations of narrative development. We do have recurring characters, both harsh and benevolent, and Leo’s eventual return to his family (including a baby brother he resents for drawing attention from his amazing, terrible years), but the heart of this book is Leo’s “urge to invent escape words”.
As for the “hunger angel”, this is the contrived and somewhat overindulged spirit that broods over his life, interrupts its few pleasures and remains to damn him. In a sense the hunger angel is superfluous: The misery of Leo’s days is conveyed by almost everything he’s forced to do, almost everything he sees and wishes for.
Muller’s ability to convey this makes her book one of the few major recent contributions to the imaginative literature of the concentration camp.