The Hunger Angel was my introduction to the work of Herta Müller. First published in 2009, the same year that she received the Nobel Prize, it is (like much of her work) deeply political. Romania was occupied by the Soviet Union from 1944 to 1958. Müller’s novel deals with the time immediately following WWII when, as she explains in the book’s afterward: “In January 1945 the Soviet General Vinogradov presented a demand in Stalin’s name that all Germans living in Romania be mobilized for “rebuilding” the war-damaged Soviet Union. All men and women in between seventeen and forty-five years of age were deported to forced labor camps in the Soviet Union.”
These laborers suffered under conditionals comparable to those of the German concentration camps. Starvation, deprivation, exhaustion and humiliation were constant states of being. But it is the starvation on which Müller focuses. It is an all consuming thing – embodied by and given shape as the hunger angel of the title.* The angel is a construct of the novel’s teenage narrator. It functions alternately as a metaphor and as a powerful visual.
Unloading [coal] was always a job for two or three people. Not counting the hunger angel, because we weren’t sure whether there was one hunger angel for all of us or if each of us had his own. The hunger angel approached everyone, without restraint. He knew that where things can be unloaded, other things can be loaded. In terms of mechanics, the results can be horrifying: if each person has his own hunger angel, then every time someone dies, a hunger angel is released. Eventually there would be nothing but abandoned hunger angels, abandoned heart-shovels, abandoned coal.
If you’ve read Martin Amis’ House of Meetings – a typically merciless novel which tells the story of two brothers imprisoned in a Soviet Gulag – you may find yourself (like me) making the inevitable comparisons. Amis’ description of camp life is slightly different, or perhaps it is in his focus where the differences lie. There seems to be less fraternization between male and female prisoners in House of Meetings; the inmates are Russian political prisoners rather than German; and the violence is endemic. Müller and Amis are in agreement over the lack of food (I found it interesting that both books contain scenes where prisoners scrabble for potato peels) but hunger isn’t the focus in House of Meetings. It is a prop. Amis is telling a story about violence, jealousy and its aftermath – his writing lacks any hint of the feminine. (I don’t mean this as a criticism, just as a statement of fact). The Hunger Angel, in contrast, is about survival. It is instructive where House of Meetings is dramatic. Müller’s prose may appear gentler than Amis’, but it’s just as effective in conveying the brutal toll camp life takes on the individual. Leo Auberg (the narrator from The Hunger Angel) and Lev (the younger brother of the narrator in House of Meetings) have similar reactions after their release. Both men are too broken to return to the people they loved in their old lives.
Müller chose to write The Hunger Angel as a series of self-contained anecdotes versus a continuous narrative, exploring every aspect of camp life – the work details, the inmates, the capos, relations between men and women, relations to the Soviets, etc. It was planned as a joint venture between herself and her friend, the poet Oskar Psatior. His experiences as a teenager are the basis of the story. He died before the book came to fruition, but Müller had taken copious notes during their conversations. A year after his death, still grieving I’m sure, she began writing. The structure – written in short chapters that often run tangential to eachother – creates an emotional proximity between the teller and the reader. Müller has recreated the experience, the intimacy, of listening in to a conversation. I was emotionally engaged despite the restrained tone in which the stories are told… often becoming outraged, upset and heartbroken by what I was hearing/reading. It was as if Leo was someone I knew personally. I responded as if we were friends.
*I thought it would be interesting to point out the significance of titles, both their connection to the text and their influence on the reader. The Hunger Angel was originally published in English as Everything I Possess I Carry With Me (the German title was Atemschaukel). These two titles convey carry and convey completely different meanings. For example: the former implies poetry and the latter disassociation. In my opinion the gap in this case is so large as to possibly change how a reader might perceive/decipher the author’s intent. Am I alone in finding the differences between the two titles jarring?
Publisher: Henry Holt and Company, New York (2012)
ISBN: 978 0 8050 9301 8