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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

'The Hunger Angel' Lifts the Silence

Müller takes readers inside Soviet labor camp

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For a past writing project I interviewed about two-dozen ex-POWs concerning their experiences in a Chinese-run POW camp in North Korea. When asked what topic or issue most occupied their thoughts and conversation, almost to a man they said it was not sex, not home, not politics—but food.

So it is also for the prisoners of a Soviet forced-labor camp in Herta Müller's The Hunger Angel  (Metropolitan Books). Chronic hunger rules their lives, and starvation sometimes takes them. There is little capacity for sex among the half-starved who “are really neither masculine nor feminine but genderless, like objects.”

The prisoners are ethnic Germans living in Romania, the so-called Transylvania Saxons. Fascist Romania was allied with Nazi Germany during World War II until the Soviets invaded in 1944 and the country reversed course, declaring war on its former ally. That switch of allegiance was not enough for the Soviets. In January 1945 they began rounding up all of Romania's Germans, male and female, between the ages of 17 and 45 and transporting them to the Soviet Union to work on rebuilding war-damaged areas—reparations in human form, so to speak.

Müller, whose mother was one of those transported, was born in Romania in 1953 but has lived in Germany since 1987. She has been awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize and many other literary honors. Her novel is inspired in part by her mother's experiences and those of the poet Oskar Pastior, since deceased, whose recollections she took down in notebooks.

The Hunger Angel
is narrated by Leopold Auberg, a 17-year-old homosexual sent to a camp in the Ukrainian steppes. What is meant by the title is not clear, though the angel cannot be a guardian one, for while Leopold associates the term with many things—lice, bedbugs, the fearsome cold, the ever-present hunger—it is never anything benign. (The German title, “Atemschaukel,” translates roughly to “breath-swing.”)

Sex was not entirely absent. Leopold does not refer to personal incidents, but to other men and women, whose couplings seem driven less by lust than melancholy. “Homesickness in pairs,” one woman calls it.

This is a powerful novel but not one that is easy to read, not least because of the subject matter. While the Soviets' administration of the camp does not rise to Nazi levels of inhumanity, their apathetic unconcern for their wretched charges existing, barely, in frightful conditions is brutality at its most casual.

It moves along, loosely chronological, covering the five years of Leopold's internment, told not in traditional chapters but in 64 short pieces, some less than one page. Each has a title or heading introducing a concept or idea or, more often, an object—“Cement,” “On coal,” “Cinder blocks.” They are like section headings in a catalog of misery written in a tone of constrained coolness.

At times this gives the effect of Müller emptying the notebooks she kept. But to be fair, the point seems to be to objectify a horrible episode in history, to examine and thereby understand it by reducing it to its components of hard reality.

The strange fact is that when the Soviets took him away, Leopold appeared relieved at his fate. It is something new, weirdly adventurous and—perhaps—a way of doing penance for the collaboration of his German countrymen, who had had it comparatively easy during the war.

Leopold's grandmother had said, “I know you will come back.” (Müller does not use quotation marks around dialogue, which is sparse.) This phrase recurs; if it is not what keeps Leopold going, it is at least something to cling to. In the fourth year, the Soviets relax conditions and, as if to fatten inmates up before freeing them, pay them small amounts and allow them to buy food and other items at village stores. Finally, after five years, in January 1950, Leopold and the others are released.

When they arrive home, few people ask about where they had been. To bring up the horrors their fellow Germans had endured at the hands of the Soviets would be to encourage discussion of their own involvement or acquiescence in Romania's Nazi-connected past.

And so a silence fell—lifted now by Herta Müller.