They Ate Their Sleep

The Hunger Angel

by Herta Müller, translated from the German by Philip Boehm
Metropolitan, 290 pp., $26.00
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…

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