The Hunger Angel by Herta Muller

My friend, Aileen, gave me her copy of Herta Muller’s The Hunger Angel when she had finished it. It is not a book that I would have chosen myself. However, I am so glad that I read it. It is spellbinding.

hertaThe author, Herta Muller is most interesting. She was born in Romania, and grew up under the Ceausescu régime as part of the German minority that settled in the Banat region since the 18th century. Indeed, the history of her immediate family reflects the turmoils of war and displacement. Like many Banat Germans, her father volunteered for the Waffen SS during World War II and her mother, like thousands of other ethnic Germans between the ages of 17 and 45, was deported to a forced-labour camp in the Soviet Union after the war: she spent five years there.

She challenged her country’s enforced silence by talking to former deportees from her own village, and through lengthy conversations with the poet Oskar Pastior about his years in a Soviet forced labour camp. Müller took extensive notes from Pastior’s testimony and after Pastior’s death, Müller decided to write her book, The Hunger Angel.

The story is told by Leo Auberg, a 17-year-old who is just discovering his sexuality as something “strange, filthy, shameless and beautiful”. He is gay. Leo’s encounters with men in park pavilions and in the Neptune Baths would land him in prison or a penal colony if he were caught. Instead, because of his German background, his name is on a list, and he is to be hunger angeldeported to a forced-labour camp. The boy takes a suitcase made out of a gramophone case, and fills it with a volume of Faust, a book of poetry, aftershave, socks, a burgundy silk scarf. Every item is scrupulously detailed because each will make a difference to survival, and each object possesses a force that will only slowly disclose itself. Leo’s grandmother says five words to him: “I know you’ll come back.” This is most important of all.

To be a survivor is a complex and terrible thing. Leo has been given over to a world that those who remained behind can never imagine.Neither can they realise his anguish, disconnection and rage when he returns home five years later.

In The Hunger Angel, the fact that Leo has come back from the camp is “a stroke of crippled luck” and “a survival top that starts spinning at the least damned thing”. He is not free, and he knows it. The telling of his tale in all its intricate and wretched detail is the thing that brings him to life. This detail is extraordinary. Müller credits Pastior for her knowledge of the life in the camp but the inwardness of vision throughout the story is something Müller owes to her imagination alone. This is a remarkable novel, both bleak and chastening. Leo may be at home again, but within him his experience of life in the camp lives on forever. I highly recommend this harrowing and unique book.

Valerie Penny

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