In an afterword to The Hunger Angel, Herta Muller reveals its origins in fact: in the aftermath of the Second World War Stalin insisted that Germans between the ages of seventeen and forty-five living in Romania (which had allied itself with Germany) be deported to the Soviet Union to ‘rebuild’. Muller’s mother spent five years in a labour camp, but for this novel she draws mainly on the memories of poet Oskar Pastior with whom she originally planned to write a book on the subject. When he died she eventually pursued the idea alone, using the notes they had made together over many conversations to recreate the experience of the forced labour camps where hunger dominated. Muller has had a patchy history of translation, with only a couple of books appearing in the 1980s and 90s, but a Nobel Prize in 2009 has led to her work being made available more regularly in English, in this case by Philip Boehm who includes an interesting note of his own about the nuances of translating her language.
The Hunger Angel begins prior to Leo’s deportation (Leo is presumably based on Pastior), revealing his homosexuality and his guilt:
“But the more I tried to stop myself, the faster I went back – after two days. For a rendezvous, as it was known in the park.”
What is interesting about this is that it disappears as a concern once he is in the camp, emphasising how imprisonment eliminates much of what makes him an individual, but it also prevents a straightforward reading which would interpret the camp as bad and therefore outside the camp as good:
“Before, during and after my time in the camp, for twenty-five years, I lived in in fear – of my family and of the state.”
The majority of the novel, however, is focused on the camp. Muller writes about this with the kind of detail you would expect from a writer with access to a first-hand account. At the centre of the inmates’ experience is hunger:
“…there is a hunger which is always new, which grows insatiably, which pounces on the never-ending old hunger that already took such an 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.”
The personification of hunger as the hunger angel makes this feeling an enemy to be resisted:
“The hunger angel looks at his scales and says:
You’re still not light enough for me. Why don’t you just let go.
I say: You’re deceiving me with my own flesh…But I am not my flesh. I am something else and I won’t let go.”
The idea of the angel suggests not only omnipresence and death but a certain beauty and attraction.
Muller captures brilliantly the circumscribed world of the camp with its narrow focus on the optimum utility of every decision. This cannot even be described as being entirely about survival as we see when Leo thinks they are about to be shot:
“I pushed myself to the front row so I could be one of the first. That way I wouldn’t have to load corpses onto the truck…”
The novel is told is a series of short chapters (some are only a page). These create a picture of life in the camp and some of the prisoners, but there is little sense of progression over the period of incarceration. Muller describes the journey to the camp and the release, but in between time exists in a different form; the moment the narrative turns to the camp it is almost as if Leo has always been there.
The Hunger Angel is not an enjoyable book. Then focus on survival is relentless. The characters are limited by the very circumstances they find themselves in. There are moments when you feel as a reader you may never leave the camp, but there are also times when you find yourself absorbing the detail with the same desperation as those who needed that knowledge to survive.