Historical account

by | Sep 16, 2013 | Book Reviews

The Hunger Angel (A Novel)
Herta Muller, translated by Philip Boehm
Metropolitan Books, 2012
290 pages, $26

Author Herta Muller, the 2009 Nobel Laureate in literature, is a native of Romania who lives in Berlin, Germany. Her latest book, The Hunger Angel, was first published in Germany in 2009. It was rightfully hailed as a unique contribution to the portrayal of the human condition in the straits of oppression. The author’s literary style of stark realism fits the dreariness of existence in a forced labor camp of the past Soviet gulag, exposing the human body and spirit to grave suffering and death.

The novel is rooted in the historical account of the punitive deportation of ethnic Germans living in Romania (including Muller’s mother), at Stalin’s order following the victory over Nazi Germany with which the Fascist Romanian dictator, Ian Antonescu, was aligned. Affected were those of 17–45 years of age, male and female, who, if they survived, would spend five years away from home, forever changing and marking their lives.

The book’s title, The Hunger Angel, is indicative of the constant and extreme hunger hovering over the unfortunate deportees; hunger for food that they received in meager, starving portions of one shovel of coal equal to one gram of bread. “What can be said about chronic hunger? Perhaps that there’s a hunger that can make you sick with hunger… That there is a hunger that 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 say about yourself is that you’re hungry?”

Hunger can drive one to steal food even from dear family members, as it happened in my family. Not everyone can resist hunger’s corroding moral impact. Each laborer was assigned a number, not unlike the inmates in the German concentration camps, with the goal to dehumanize and destroy the “old” identity. My own Polish family, exiled to Siberia and Kazakhstan during WWII , similarly experienced deprivation and the struggle to maintain one’s humanity and dignity. There is the added hunger of homesickness that is debilitating too, given such a frustrating reality; but a harsh environment is also nourishing with hope, keeping one focused on survival. Sexual identity and drive are also at risk. In the novel, bartering one’s precious items such as cloth and even book pages for food was a common phenomenon, as well as swapping bread with fellow inmates since it appeared that one would end up with a larger piece, but often after several swaps ended up with the original bread. Another challenge was not eating up one’s saved and hidden portions.

The book’s protagonist is 17-year-old Leo Auberg. Sixty years after his release, he still does not take eating as a matter of fact, rejoicing in the very act. I know from my own once refugee mother, that hoarding food years later is an instinctive response to past deprivation.

Trudi Pelican, Leo’s friend, who became a human horse, pulling the lime wagon and later removing the naked corpses, shared with him her dream of a rich American whose money gets her out of the camp to marry her, and even has a sister for Leo. Dreaming is a temporary and consoling way to escape a harsh present. In the camp’s last year with freedom within reach, love budded among the starved inmates, physically and emotionally. Couples came to be formed if only temporarily, with babies being born, along with abortions, and both women and men suddenly taking note of their appearance. A reminder of what happened in the Displaced Camps of Europe—My family and I were in the Wetzlar, Germany camp— following WWII .

Freedom, however, can be a scary proposition following lengthy denial, as expressed by Leo upon his return, nearing home. After all, the dreaded “home” he could not wait to leave became his real home paradoxically and ironically. Indeed, freedom is not free from the preceding experience of enslavement, which is bound to leave a scar. He was already 22 years old, while his family presumed he had died, given that there was no communication. Both sides found it hard to adjust.

In the book’s Afterward, the author expresses gratitude to the poet Oskar Pastior, who shared with her his experiences at the camp. They planned to jointly write the novel, but he died unexpectedly in 2006. The book is a moving memorial to all victims of oppression as well as a celebration of the durability of human spirit and it’s undying quest for freedom—physically, psychologically and spiritually.

—Rabbi Israel Zoberman is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Chaverim.