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.”
Dexterous with imagery and wordplay, Herta Müller is also amazingly at home with the nature of material things. The Hunger Angel is full of confident descriptions of the stuff the prisoners are working with, and of what it feels like to shovel, scrape, or carry it. She knows the foulness of hefting leaky cement bags in wet weather, the delight of acquiring almost balletic proficiency at wielding a heavy “heart-shovel” of coal, the taxonomy of different kinds of boiler slag that each require different skills to remove them, the polychrome layers in a sand quarry, the nightmare of carrying a ten-kilo, freshly pressed, and still unstable cinder block from its pressing frame to the drying area without letting it collapse:
In the evening a spotlight cast a beam of harsh light on the scene. Moths twirled around, and the mixing drum and the press loomed in the light like machines covered with fur. The moths weren’t drawn only to the light. The moist smell of the mix attracted them, like night-blooming flowers. They settled on the blocks that were drying…. They also settled on the block you were carrying and distracted you from your balancing act…. Occasionally two or three appeared at once and sat there as though they’d hatched out of the block itself. As though the wet mix on the board were not made of slag, cement, and lime slurry but was a square lump of larvae from which the moths emerged.
How does she know all this? How does she know all the various smells encountered across the rusting industrial mess of the work site, and what they remind you of—the fire-clay crystals smelling like chrysanthemum bushes, the tank water like naphthalene mothballs, the rotting asphalt like shoe polish, the abandoned and solidified chemical fertilizer like alum?
In the novel, those comparisons are part of a technique Leo Aubach has invented to refuse “to let the chemicals have their poisonous way with me.” He reinterprets the odors as fragrances and “succeeded in creating a pleasant addiction for myself.” In the same way, he joins the camp women in escaping hunger by eating sumptuous imaginary meals, reciting elaborate recipes (hazelnut noodles, boiled pig’s head with horseradish). Climbing into their bunks at night, they climb into their hunger and proceed to eat their sleep, greedy dream by dream.
Nobody has any idea when they will be released, if ever. By the fourth year over three hundred of them have died, their bodies stacked in frozen snow behind the sickbay until the spring thaw allows them to be dismembered and buried in a pit. When the only ethnic Romanian dies—a woman apparently grabbed off the street by the train guards in order to make up the prisoner numbers—Bea Zakel orders her long hair to be cut off in order to stuff a window cushion to stop drafts. To strip the clothes off a fresh corpse, or to share out his or her little hoard of bread fragments—that is normal. “When all you are is skin and bones, feelings are a brave thing.” But Bea Zakel has crossed the line of what is tolerable.
A little later, Leo receives a postcard, his first message from home in the years since he entered the camp. It consists of the photograph of a baby, sewn to the card; underneath in his mother’s hand is written: “Robert b. April 17 1947.” Not a word for Leo, who concludes that his parents have had another baby because they have given up on him. His mother might as well have written: “As far as I’m concerned, you can die where you are, we’ll have more room at home.”
He forces himself not to answer the card or make any effort to contact his family. More and more, he feels that the camp, or rather existence in the camp, has become his only real home:
Some people speak and sing and walk and sit and sleep and silence their homesickness, for a long time and to no avail. Some say that over time homesickness loses its specific content, that it starts to smolder and only then becomes all-consuming, because it’s no longer focused on a concrete home. I am one of the people who say that.
Even the hideous figure of Fenya, the Russian woman who holds the power of life and death each morning as she weighs out the miserable bread ration, trimming each piece with her huge knife, comes to seem majestic rather than hateful. “Fenya seemed to exude a Communist saintliness.” She is just. “She gives me my share of food…. I have the camp, and the camp has me. All I need is a bunk and Fenya’s bread and my tin bowl. I don’t even need Leo Auberg.”
When he is released, into the bleak Stalinist landscape of Romania in 1950, it is not only fear of political consequences that makes Leo keep his memories to himself. It’s a sort of shame, which he knows will be shared and understood by other survivors. He thinks he spies Bea Zakel in a window, her blond braid turned gray, but walks on without making a sign to her. In the main square of Hermannstadt, he meets his camp friend Trudi limping toward him. She drops her cane on the ground and bends down as if to lace up her shoe:
For our own sakes we preferred to act as though we didn’t know each other. There’s nothing to understand about that. I quickly turned my head, but how gladly I would have put my arms around her and let her know that I agreed with her.
A letter comes from another camp comrade in Vienna; Tur Prikulitsch has been found dead under a Danube bridge, his skull split by an axe. Leo buys some lined notebooks and begins to write. At first he tries to tell the truth. But as time passes he tears up the passages recording those shafts of light—the milk, the batiste handkerchief—and instead writes a story of how he triumphed over starvation by his own ingenuity and self-discipline:
When I got to the hunger angel I went into raptures, as if he’d only saved me and not tormented me…. I was now free, but it was immense personal disaster that I was irrevocably alone and bearing false witness against myself.
The Hunger Angel is a wonderful, passionate, poetic work of literature, written—as one critic put it, in the blood of Herta Müller’s own heart. It’s a fiction that, like a metalworker’s furnace, completely and successfully consumes the facts on which it is based. But assembling those facts, and the way in which the author eventually used them, is a tale in itself. The poet Oskar Pastior, a “Saxon,” was the same age as Leo when he was deported in 1945. Müller had always wanted to write about the fate of her parents’ generation, and when she met Pastior, an exile in Berlin like herself, they decided to collaborate on a novel about the camps. But Pastior (who apparently invented the “hunger angel” trope) died suddenly in 2006. After a pause, Müller resolved to write the novel herself, based on her own research and on the notes she had taken down from her friend. Leo’s life is not a one-to-one biography of the young Oskar, but there are many close resemblances and several moments when one senses that the language, the choice of epithets, is more Pastior’s than Müller’s.
The novel wasn’t welcomed everywhere, when it appeared in its original German in 2009. The basest criticism of all came from some of Müller’s fellow Romanian-German exiles, egged on by the numerous veterans of the old Securitate who are still all too active. Having failed to blackmail her into becoming an informer, they took revenge by spreading the false rumor that she had agreed to inform as the price of getting out of Romania in the 1980s. The exiles also took the view that Müller had treacherously “befouled her nest” by recalling the Nazi past of the previous generation.
This rubbish was predictable and worthless. More surprising and much more interesting was a harsh and elaborate attack in the liberal-intellectual German weekly Die Zeit by the critic Iris Radisch. She denounced The Hunger Angel on two distinct grounds: that it was written in an affected and inappropriate style, and that what Radisch referred to as “Gulag literature” should not be attempted “at second hand,” by somebody who had never experienced the camps.
Before considering Radisch’s comments, a foreigner ought to remember that German literary criticism has a tradition of theatrical, annihilating ferocity. The writings of the powerful German critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki, himself a refugee from Poland, are a case in point. Some of his reviews of the later fiction of Günter Grass seemed to leave only a blackened crater where once there was a novel. Iris Radisch dismisses The Hunger Angel as “powdered and stagey…a childish-magical tenderness nestles around the horror as a footwrap nestles itself around a prisoner’s foot, and veils everything and everyone in the gruesomely prettified melancholy of a woebegone lullaby.” She particularly objects to Müller’s old-fashioned Expressionist reliance on metaphor and simile, and to her lyrical vocabulary that ornaments the grimmest experiences. The result is “an artificial-snow prose that buries pain under an antiquarian pathos.”
This seems an eccentric complaint. Herta Müller’s imagery is often complex and obscure, more so than in her previous novels set in the Romania of the Ceauşescu dictatorship, but never sentimental. Radisch contrasts this book with the spare, metaphor-free style of Imre Kertesz, who turned his time in Buchenwald into fiction. But there are many ways to write a good novel. Projecting bizarre fantasies and surreal, anthropomorphic scenery into a Soviet labor camp might not have worked with a lesser artist than Müller, but there’s never a moment in The Hunger Angel in which a reader will lose confidence in her command of language.
Mention of Kertesz brings up the other point: Radisch’s strange objection to “secondhand” writing about the twentieth century’s prison camps and genocides. She declares that “the era of Gulag literature, which took our breath away, has come to its natural end, and can’t be revived as a second-hand industry by harp-twanging and angelic choirs.” But the Polish writer Eva Hoffman dealt with this problem in her remarkable book After Such Knowledge (2004). There she asked for recognition for the “second generation” of survivors. Those who did not directly suffer the Gulag or the Holocaust, she wrote, have grown up to be an organic part of that experience through their bond with their parents. “The second generation is the hinge generation in which received, transferred knowledge of events is transmuted into history, or into myth.” Or in the case of Herta Müller, precisely of that hinge generation, into superb imaginative fiction.
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. ↩