Müller tells the story of a 17-year-old Romanian-born German forced to toil away in a Soviet labor camp to atone for Nazi crimes. Her language is so beautiful it hurts, while bringing readers to their emotional limits.
This book is not a fantasy. Instead, it is based on the memories of the Romanian-born German writer Oskar Pastior, who — like the novel's protagonist, 17-year-old Leo Auberg — spent five years of his life in a prison camp. Pastior was never able to find his way back to normal life after being released from the camp. He kept quiet about his fate for decades.
Pastior eventually shared his experiences in a series of long talks with his friend, writer Herta Müller. The conversations developed into the wish to write a joint novel, but it wasn't to be: Pastior died in 2006. The Hunger Angel appeared three years later.
Soviet gulags for Germans of Romania
As a member of the German-speaking minority in Romania, Pastior was deported to a Soviet gulag shortly before the end of World War II, where he spent the next few years. Such forced labor was supposed to serve as punishment and atonement for the crimes of the Nazi regime. Along with Pastior, 60,000 other individuals between the ages of 17 and 35 experienced hunger, deprivation and desperation. The topic remained taboo until Romania's communist system collapsed in 1989. It then took another 20 years until Herta Müller published her novel.
Language as lifesaver
The Hunger Angel is not a historical novel. At the center of the book is 17-year-old Leo, who in January 1945 is picked up, packed into a livestock wagon and deported to a forced labor camp. He has no idea what's in store for him and imagines an adventure awaits. He sees it all as a chance to escape the confinement of his family — for Leo is homosexual and fears that it could land him in prison.
He quickly learns that the labor camp offers no chance for a new life, but rather, only degradation as he is forced to toil away to rebuild the Soviet Union. Leo feels his sense of self disappear. He grows numb as everything unique about him falls away. Indeed, it must fall away if he wants to survive. Hunger also eats away at him.
It is only language that helps him and the other prisoners to momentarily forget the horrors of the camp. Words provide comfort and escape.
"Telling a recipe takes greater art than telling a joke. The punch line has to hit home even though it's not funny. Here in the camp it's already a joke as soon as you say: FIRST TAKE. The punch line is that there's nothing to take. But no one bothers to say that. Recipes are the jokes of the hunger angel."
Hunger angels and teetering breath
The story is told in language so beautiful that it hurts. It pushes the reader to emotional limits. At the same time, Herta's images and words have something old-fashioned and excessive about them, as if they are from a different, long-lost world.
The hunger angel, for example, is a type of spirit that is always there. Every person in the camp has a hunger angel. It watches over each woman and man as they sleep and accompanies them into the field, where they toil away until exhaustion — and sometimes until death.
Or take Müller's idea of a teetering breath, an image that is used as the book's German title, Die Atemschauklen. It's meaning is never really clarified.
"I keep the two ends in balance, the heart-shovel teeters in my hand like a seesaw, the way my breath teeters inside my chest."
Oppression of Romania's German minority under Ceausescu
Müller herself was a Romanian-born German who was spied upon, intimidated, interrogated and censured. In 1987 she emigrated to West Germany, where she continued to feel threatened by the Romanian Socialist Republic's secret police, the Securitate. Life under dictatorship and the distortions this causes have remained leitmotivs in her literary work through the present day.
With The Hunger Angel Müller departed from her own biography for the first time. Cultural media heralded it as a masterpiece, but there were also critical voices who accused the author of beautifying horror.
Nobel Prize for Literature
Müller won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2009, the same year that The Hunger Angel was published. In their award decision, the jury said Müller was a writer "who, with the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed."
And that is exactly the feeling a reader gets from her novels, stories and essays a feeling of not belonging anywhere, which hope alone cannot drive away.
Herta Müller: The Hunger Angel, Portobello, (German title: Atemschaukel, 2009). English translation: Philip Boehm.
Müller was born in Nitchidorf, Romania in 1953. A member of the country's ethnic German minority, she grew up in Banat. In 1987 she moved to the German Federal Republic. The majority of her works – poems, novels and essays – deal with the consequences of the communist dictatorship. Along with The Hunger Angel, her most famous books include The Fox was Ever the Hunter and The Land of Green Plums. She won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2009.