Book review: The Hunger Angel by Herta Müller

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HERTA MÜLLER won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2009. This was a surprise. A German-Romanian, a dissident in the Communist years who managed to emigrate to Berlin in 1987, she wasn’t a popular writer, scarcely a well-known one, even in Germany.

The Hunger Angel

by Herta Müller

Portobello, 290pp, £14.99

That said, the Swedish Academy has recently made a habit of awarding the prize to writers without an international reputation, so the choice of Müller was not remarkable. Moreover, since she writes in German, which is her first language, one can assume that some at least of the judges were able to read her work in the original, rather than having to rely on translations.

In 1945 members of the German minority in Romania – a minority usually known as the Transylvanian Saxons – were deported to labour camps in the Soviet Union to work on the reconstruction of its shattered towns and villages. They became in effect slave labourers for a term of five years. Müller’s mother was one of them. So was a gay German-Romanian poet Oskar Pastior. Müller met him in Germany in 2001, and told him she wanted to write a book about the camps. He offered to help with his memories. They agreed to write the book together. Then he died and Müller was left with four notebooks in which she had recorded their conversations. The Hunger Angel is made from these notebooks and her imagination.

It is billed as a novel, and inasmuch as it tells a story, beginning with the seventeen-year-old Leo’s arrest and journey to the camp, and proceeding through a detailed account of his five years of work and suffering, and continuing to his return, attempts to resume normal life, and eventual emigration to Austria, it may reasonably be called a novel. It is not, however, a conventional one.

And it is not likely to appeal to those who read novels for the story or the interest of the characters. Though many of the individuals are named, and we learn something of how they behave, there is little characterisation in the conventional sense. Perhaps there couldn’t be. The labour camp is a place where people are stripped of their identity as individuals; they are reduced to nakedness. When one of them dies, they are angry that she is buried in her clothes “when there are living people freezing”.

Despite such chilling and, one fears, all too truthful examples, Müller eschews the documentary style of camp memoirs, the style which contributed to the authority of Solzhenitsyn’s account of the struggle to survive in the gulags. Instead she write in an imaginative and poetic style. Paragraphs, pages, and whole chapters are brilliantly written, and it is clear that the translator Philip Boehm has managed a difficult task with sensitivity and imagination. In his note, he quotes one of Leo’s observations: “I carry silent baggage. I have packed myself into silence so deeply and for so long that I can never unpack myself using words.” That certainly has been the experience of many who have endured and survived comparable ordeals. Some of us have known, for example, people who spent years in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps, and were never able to bring themselves to speak of the experience.

Müller, however, has had to find words for a man who can’t unpack himself using words, and many of those she has found may fairly be called flowery. There is a sense in which she may be said to have written a succession of prose poems, vivid and demanding of the reader’s closest attention, rather than a narrative.

The hunger angel of the title is the guardian that accompanies Leo throughout his years of ordeal. Nothing matters more than food; the mind dwells on nothing more intensely. If you don’t eat, you die, and so the search for any plant that can supplement the meagre and unsustaining rations, the thin soup and the brick-hard bread, becomes obsessive. One other thing keeps him going: his grandmother’s assurance that she knows he will come back.

But this is a book about debasement, and nobody survives that unscathed. In old age Leo reflects that “the camp let me go home only to create the space it needed to grow inside my head … The camp stretches on and on … I can’t protect myself by keeping silent and I can’t protect myself by talking.”

This is not a book for everyone. It is probably not a book for many. But it is one which illuminates some of the dark places of life, a book which can exert a spell, and which, if you grant it the attention it deserves, will very likely have you returning to it – if only to read a chapter or two slowly and reflectively, and then, after perhaps an interval, another and another.