The Hunger Angel by Herta Muller
The rise and fall of Hitler and the Soviet Union has been well documented over the past 60 years or so, and now, Nobel Prize-winner Herta Müller has chosen to add her voice to this long literary tradition with her latest novel, The Hunger Angel.
At the end of World War II, after Romania had declared war on its former ally, Nazi Germany, Soviet forces demanded that all Germans living in Romania be mobilised for ‘re-building’ the war-damaged Soviet Union. All men and women between the ages of 17 and 45 were deported to forced-labour camps, Müller’s mother being one of them (she spent five years there).
While her mother’s deportation remained a taboo subject during her childhood, Müller would later find herself in conversation with the poet Oskar Pastior, whose own experiences and recollections of the labour camps helped create the character of Leo Auberg.
When we first meet 17-year-old Leo, he is engaging in sexual encounters in the local park with transitory soldiers. His call to the camp is initially met with naïve gladness and exhilaration at the prospect of leaving his watchful small town behind. But this optimism disappears almost as soon as he steps on a cattle car.
What follows are stories from camp life, told in short, incisive chapters that help to remove some of the repetitive harshness of life there.
Characters come and go, all of them trapped and exhausted by the heavy work: coal shovelling, mortar hauling and slag clearing. All of them, too, are haunted by the hunger angel, an ethereal spirit that broods over them and seeks to destroy what little hopes they have left.
Leo Auberg is a character displaced both as a native German deported from his home in Romania, and as someone poetically, and sexually, at odds with his environment.
Certainly, Leo’s sexuality is repressed for much of the novel; his initial fleeting relationships with men are not referred to again after the first few chapters, and his brief marriage upon his return home to a girl called Emma towards the end of the novel is barely explored.
Still, Müller’s gift for finding words for, as translator Philip Boehm writes, ‘the displacement of the soul’ is always present. Often, her descriptions defy any literal meaning. Instead, they convey the many layers of her protagonist’s story, and, in this case, resonate with the word play in Oskar Pastior’s poetry.
In the end, it is Leo’s poetic reflections on liaisons and landscapes, and his ability to imagine and create, that hold him to life.
And us, as readers, to this book.
Nicole Mansour is the Assistant Manager of Readings St Kilda.