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They Ate Their Sleep

The Hunger Angel

by Herta Müller, translated from the German by Philip Boehm
Metropolitan, 290 pp., $26.00
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Luca Nizzoli Toetti/Getty Images
Herta Müller in Frankfurt, Germany, shortly after winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, October 2009

On their way back to the labor camp, the women would scour the heaps of rubble for edible weeds. Their favorite was orach, a spiky-leaved plant sometimes called mountain spinach. Picked in spring when the leaves were still tender, it could be boiled into soup or eaten as a soft vegetable if the prisoners could season it with rare and precious salt—“gray and coarse like gravel.”

While they stood hour after hour in ranks for the evening torment of “Appell,” the counting-off parade, little cooking fires lit by the shift workers glimmered around the edge of the parade ground. When Appell was over, prisoners with something to barter could buy small pots of boiled orach, even on a good day cooked beet or millet. The rest had to make do with the watery cabbage soup in the mess hall.

After a few months, orach takes on a russet color, produces handsome red flowers, and grows woody and inedible. Leopold Aubach, the young narrator of The Hunger Angel, remarks that “the time for eating orach is over. But not the hunger, which is always greater than we are.” He tells us how

there’s a hunger that can make you sick with hunger…. Which is always new, which grows insatiably, which pounces on the never-ending old hunger that already took such effort to tame…. Your mouth begins to expand, its roof rises to the top of your skull, all senses alert for food. When you can no longer bear the hunger, your whole head is racked with pain, as though the pelt from a freshly skinned hare were being stretched out to dry inside. Your cheeks wither and get covered with pale fur…. The red flower clusters were jeweled ornaments around the neck of the hunger angel.

Leopold will spend five years in the domain of the hunger angel, and of the hunger angels settled in the bodies and souls of each fellow inmate in this corner of Stalin’s Gulag. Sixty years later, as an old man looking back on his past before, during, and after the camp, he recognizes that his angel did not desert him when he was eventually released and returned to his Romanian home. Instead, it changed functions to become a “disabler,” a bleak possessing spirit that for the rest of his life has denied him the capacity to show his feelings.

Herta Müller, Nobel laureate, is a writer who releases great emotional power through a highly sophisticated, image-studded, and often expressionist prose. It must have been a combination of her own technical self-confidence and the urge to break silence about the fate of her parents’ generation that led her to attack a project as difficult as this. Celebrated survivors from Primo Levi to Varlam Shalamov have written unforgettable books about life and death in the camp empires of Hitler and Stalin, sometimes as memoir but sometimes (Imre Kertesz’s Fateless, for instance) as fiction. Faced with their example, a writer who is not a survivor and was never in a camp but who sits down to compose a full-length novel about that experience requires imagination, meticulous research, rich literary gifts, and a lot of courage.

The first pages of The Hunger Angel show that Müller has all of these. But there has been sharp controversy about the book, some of it raising ostensibly literary objections but some that are indirectly ethical or political and some—fumes from certain Romanian gutters—simply slanderous. The narrative of the novel is about the miseries and rare epiphanies of the Gulag as they have an impact, physically and imaginatively, on a young boy; the political background of it all is confined to allusions. But it’s unfair to any reader not to know something about where Müller and her story are coming from.

In pre-1939 Romania, within its unstable frontiers, there lived two large German-speaking minorities. One was the mainly Protestant “Saxon” population in the hills of Transylvania. The other group, the “Banat Swabians,” lived in the plains toward Hungary and were mostly Catholic.* Herta Müller grew up in a Swabian village, and most of her fiction—like her brave struggles against the Communist police state—has been concerned with the experience of the Banat Germans. This time, however, her novel’s protagonist Leopold comes from the other community, from a Transylvanian family in the ancient town of Sibiu, which the Germans called Hermannstadt.

Both “Saxons” and “Swabians” fell enthusiastically under Hitler’s spell. Many men served in Waffen-SS divisions on the Eastern Front, until Romania abruptly broke with Nazi Germany in 1944 and changed sides. Vengeance soon followed. Even before the war was over, the entire German population of Romania between the ages of seventeen and forty-five was “mobilized” and deported to work as slave labor rebuilding the war-shattered economy of Soviet Ukraine. Müller’s mother was among them. When their exile ended five years later, some 15 percent had died of exhaustion, hunger, and disease.

That setting gave a special edge of bitterness and loneliness to the suffering of that generation. Even after they were allowed to return to Romania, several thick layers of silence still covered what had happened to them. The postwar Communist regime treated the German minority as potential “fascist saboteurs”; later, the ultra-nationalist tyranny of Nicolae Ceauşescu, constructing its own “Dacian-Thracian” myth of origin, persecuted them as racial aliens. To publicly describe their deportation would have been taken not only as “anti-Soviet propaganda” but also as an unwelcome reminder of Romania’s own fascist period under the pro-Nazi dictatorship (1940–1944) of Ion Antonescu.

So this segment of the past was blanked out. Herta Müller, born in 1953, grew up in a society where the fate of her parents’ generation was mentioned only within the family, and then as seldom as possible. The private dream was to reach Germany—the non-Communist West Germany. But the frontiers were tightly closed; alone among Central and East European states in the immediate aftermath of war, Romania did not expel its German minorities. As Müller has recorded in two devastating earlier novels (The Appointment and The Land of Green Plums), the only escape routes were either to risk death under the bullets of frontier guards or to earn a passport by becoming an informer for the Securitate secret police. Only when the borders began to ease open, in the late 1980s and then after the bloody overthrow of Ceauşescu’s tyranny, did mass emigration to Germany and Austria begin. Of the 115,000 “Saxons” still in Transylvania in 1989, some 90,000 had left by 1992.

The Hunger Angel is an album of brief or sometimes longer sketches. Each is a literary work complete in itself, but the sketches are set more or less chronologically. They begin in the train of cattle cars that drags its victims over many days and nights deeper and deeper into the Soviet Union, and end with the released but psychically “disabled” Leopold confronting the house and family that is supposed to be his home. As the scenes follow one another, a cast of characters emerges. The camp commandant is a bawling Russian brute of no significance; real authority rests with the “kapo,” Tur Prikulitsch, a prisoner rewarded with almost every privilege. “He doesn’t know the hunger angel.” Müller’s description of him is a good example of her rather Kafkaesque prose, her cunning use of simile and metaphor that here inverts the animate and the inanimate:

He has the whole day to admire himself…. He’s athletically built, with brass-colored eyes and an oily gaze, small ears that lie flat like two brooches, a porcelain chin, nostrils pink like tobacco flowers, a neck like candle wax.

At another level, this passage subtly reminds the reader that Leo is gay. Still a teenager, he was deported just at the moment when he was embarking on deliciously perilous cruising in the local park at home. But in the camp homosexuality would mean death. The only tolerated form of sex takes place in an abandoned drainpipe between women deportees and German prisoners of war, until both parties become too starved and cold to bother. Leopold draws close to Bea Zakel, the prisoner-mistress of the kapo who uneasily shares the kapo’s privileges: “she wants to live like him but still be one of us.” Hunger—the struggle not to die—is the scale on which everything is weighed, in a place where Leopold creeps by night to the garbage heap to wolf down frozen potato peelings, and even Tur Prikulitsch is somehow aware that in a hunger-world there are debts that he must pay. So when Bea Zakel takes Leopold’s treasured silk scarf and, instead of trading it for food, gives it to her lover, the kapo discreetly arranges that Leopold will be left alone in front of a mound of potatoes. (He manages to stuff nearly three hundred of them into his clothing; back in his barrack hut, he puts some aside for himself but uses the rest to pay off borrowed salt or sugar.)

Other memorable figures include Kati, a tiny half-witted woman who does not even understand that she is in a camp, Leo’s friend Trudi from Hermannstadt who is assigned to stacking frozen corpses after her foot is mangled by a wagon carrying rubble, and the Gasts. Frau Heidrun Gast is clearly dying; “she already had the dead-monkey face, the slit mouth running from one ear to the other, swollen eyes and the white hare in the hollows of her cheeks.” (The white hare belongs to one of Müller’s typically involuted wordplays. One of the varieties of coal the prisoners have to shovel is “gas coal”—gazovy, which in Ukrainian becomes hazoviy; this sounds to Müller like the words Hase-vey (hare woe), which in turn become a term running through the novel as a synonym for death.) When Frau Gast becomes too weak to eat, her husband can’t help thrusting his spoon into her bowl and stealing her cabbage soup. And Leo puts his spoon in too. How could he not? “That was the way of the world: because each person couldn’t help it, no one could.”

And yet shafts of light break into this horrible landscape. Leo holds tightly to his grandmother’s words as he left the house: “I know you’ll come back.” He is reminded of them when he and a workmate are dosed with milk as a lung remedy for boiler fumes:

To help us last longer, once a month at the factory guard shack they pour half a liter of healthy milk into a tin bowl. It’s a gift from another world. It tastes like the person you could have remained if you hadn’t gone into the service of the hunger angel. I believe the milk.

And the milk in turn reminds him of a different moment of humanity, another “gift from another world.” Begging for food around village doors, he is taken in by a Russian woman whose own son, denounced for some remark by a neighbor, has been sent to a penal battalion. She gives him a bowl of wonderful soup and then, seeing his nose dripping, pushes into his hand a snow-white batiste handkerchief embroidered in tsarist times with a decorated silk border. “I was convinced that my grandmother’s parting sentence…had turned into a handkerchief.” Although he could have traded it for food, Leopold hides and treasures it: “I’m not ashamed to say that the handkerchief was the only person who looked after me in the camp.”

  1. *

    The names mislead: the “Saxons” did not come from Saxony, and the “Swabians” did not come from Swabia. The “Saxons” migrated mainly from the northwestern Rhineland in the early Middle Ages; the “Swabians,” recruited by the Habsburg Empire as colonists for the Danubian lands, came largely from Lorraine and north Bavaria in the late seventeenth century. The German dialects of both groups resemble those of the Mosel Valley and Luxembourg. 

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