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Book review: A vivid portrait of 'The Hunger Angel'

Nobel winner Herta Müller's novel depicts the devastating hollowness of living in a Soviet forced-labor camp. It's a story based on a friend's experiences.

June 03, 2012|By Thomas McGonigle, Special to the Los Angeles Times
(Paul Gonzales )

The Hunger Angel

A Novel

Herta Müller, translated from the German by Philip Boehm

Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt: 292 pp., $26

Fortunately, the Nobel Prize committee for literature has gotten it right when it's recognized the courageous, sensual complexities of certain writers: William Faulkner, Samuel Beckett, Claude Simon and in 2009 Herta Müller, a Romanian of German origin whose novels about the experience of growing up in communist Romania are a meticulous portrait of the devastating individual physical and mental deformation produced by that system.

Many of Müller's books are available in English, including "The Land of Green Plums" — one of the single best depictions of exactly how communism succeeded in destroying individuals' abilities to freely express themselves — and "The Appointment," which delineated how that intimidation works in practice. Müller's books are concerned with the particularity of the Romanian experience, and her precise, chiseled vision allows readers to understand what happened in former communist countries and what continues today in countries such as North Korea, Vietnam, China and Cuba.

"The Hunger Angel," published in 2009, focuses on the forced deportation in early 1945 of Romanians of German origin to labor camps in the Soviet Union as punishment for Romania having been an ally of Nazi Germany.

Müller's own mother was one of them, deported for five years to such a camp. In 2001, Müller befriended Oskar Pastior, a Romanian poet (also of German origin) then living in western Germany who shared a similar experience to the author's mother. . Over the years, Müller kept notes about their conversations and intended to write a book with Pastior — but with his sudden death in 2006, she instead decided to write about the experience of a boy much like him.

The details of "The Hunger Angel" are vivid and breathtaking: Müller gives readers the hurried packing of the suitcase for deportation and the harsh construction work in the camps: The constant shoveling of cement, slag and coal, always in the indifferent brutal heat or subzero temperatures. Müller constructs the essentials of camp life, as Leo, her main character, explains about the power of starvation: "Hunger is an object. The angel has climbed into my brain. The angel doesn't think. He thinks straight. He's never absent… He lingers in every capillary like quicksilver. First a sweetness in the throat. Then a pressure on my stomach and chest. The fear is too much."

And when there happens to be food in the camp? "Cabbage soup was our main food," Leo says, "but it mainly took the meat from our bones and the sanity from our minds. The hunger angel ran around in hysterics… Of course you go on saying HE and SHE but that's merely a grammatical holdover. Half-starved humans are really neither masculine nor feminine but genderless, like objects."

So what exactly does life mean in such a place? "The dead are stacked in the back courtyard and shoveled over with snow and left there for a few days until they are frozen hard enough…" Leo recalls. "And then gravediggers… chop up the corpses into pieces so they don't have to dig a grave, just a hole."

And if one has books in the camp, which Leo does — he packed four: "Faust," "Zarathustra" and two of poetry — they have a value one rarely thinks of in normal, ordinary life: "No novels, since you read them once and never again.… I never read the books I brought to the camp.… Then I auctioned them off. For 50 pages of 'Zarathustra' cigarette paper I received 1 measure of salt, and 70 pages fetched 1 measure of sugar. For the clothbound 'Faust' in its entirety Peter Schiel made me my own lice comb out of tin."

Two years into his imprisonment, the boy receives a Red Cross postcard from his mother, to which she has attached a photograph of a baby and only the name and date of birth. He concludes: "My parents had a baby because they've given up on me. Just as my mother abbreviated born with b, she'll abbreviate died with d. She's already done so. Isn't my mother ashamed of the space below the precisely stitched white thread, below the hand written line, the space in which I can't help but read: As far as I'm concerned you can die where you are, we'll have more room at home."

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