In Herta Muller’s Afterword to “The Hunger Angel” she tells us: “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 between seventeen and forty-five years of age were deported to forced-labor (sic) camps in the Soviet Union…The deportations were a taboo subject because they recalled Romania’s Fascist past. Those who had been in the camp never spoke of their experiences except at home or with close acquaintances who had also been deported, and then only directly”.
This is the subject of Herta Muller’s novel “The Hunger Angel”. Leo Auberg a 17 year old, who is coming to terms with his sexuality, is removed from his surroundings and family, packs his meagre belongings into a suitcase made from a gramophone box, is herded onto a train with his fellow citizens and deported to a Soviet labour-camp. Very early in the novel Leo tells us about his sexuality, “I carry silent baggage. I have packed myself into silence so deeply and for so long that I can never unpack myself using words.” As our protagonist is telling us his tale sixty years after the years he spent in the labour-camp we know he is a survivor. What we don’t know is the horrors that he is to endure. Leo is telling us his tale, experiences that are never spoken of.
Leo is also inhabited by the “Hunger Angel” a part of his being that invades his whole, living out the years with extreme and constant hunger, the angel gives him a rational beast, a part of himself, to conquer.
What can be said about chronic hunger. Perhaps that there’s a hunger that can make you sick with hunger. That it comes in addition to the hunger you already feel. That there is a hunger which is always new, which grows insatiably, which pounces on the never-ending old hunger that already took such effort to tame. How can you face the world if all you can say about yourself is that you’re hungry. If you can’t think of anything else. Your mouth begins to expand, its roof rises to the top of your skull, all senses alert for food. When you can no longer beat the hunger, your whole head is racked with pain, as though the pelt from a freshly skinned hare were being stretched out to dry inside. Your cheeks wither and get covered with pale fur.
As you can see from the quote above this novel ask questions without question marks, it uses sparse and abrupt language to describe the indescribable. It addresses normal human feelings such as boredom with page after page of musing on nothing in particular, but at the same time it addresses the unending solitude, inescapable feelings of no future, no homeland, no ability to be homesick, ceaseless working in appalling conditions and more through one man’s journey into deportation.
This is not an easy novel to tackle, not only due to the subject matter but also the bleak and at time poetic style. Our protagonist has removed himself from all emotional reaction, crying only once in the novel even though he is constantly surrounded by horror. We are looking into the soul of a man who no longer exists, one who carries “silent baggage”:
If you don’t know the dead person, then you only stand to gain. There’s nothing wrong with clearing things away: if the situation were reversed, the corpse would do the same to you, and you wouldn’t begrudge him that, either. The camp is a practical place. You can’t afford to feel shame or horror. You proceed with steady indifference, or perhaps dejected contentment. And this has nothing to do with schadenfreude. I believe that the less skittish we are around the dead, the more we cling to life. And the more we fall prey to illusions. You convince yourself that the missing people have simply been moved to another camp. It doesn’t matter what you know, you believe the opposite. Just like the bread court, the act of clearing away happens only in the present moment. But there is no violence, everything proceeds matter-of-factly and peacefully.
As the winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Literature Herta Muller endured repeated threats after refusing to cooperate with Ceausescu’s secret police, and when you read her powerful novel about Leo’s life in the Soviet labour camps you can understand why a forgotten generation of people who had no voice could rile the authorities.
Translator Philip Boehm says “In one novel after the other, it has been Herta Muller’s special calling to find words for the displacement of the soul among victims of totalitarianism. When the words cannot be found, she invents them. And when words do not suffice, she alloys the text with silence, creating striking prose of great tensile strength.” A deserved award winner for his translation of a deeply disturbing but important novel.