Life sentence

The Hunger Angel, by Herta Müller, Metropolitan Books, RRP$20, 304 pages

Leo, the narrator of Herta Müller’s remarkable new novel, concludes: “The only way you can talk about something is by again becoming the person you’re talking about.” He is therefore unable to discuss, with his family, or with anyone who has been close to him in childhood, his experience of arrest in 1945 and the five years he spent in a Soviet labour camp. This story is his attempt, as an old man, to become again that bewildered 17-year-old taken from a Romanian village in 1945 for five years’ forced labour and near starvation in a Russian camp.

Nobel Prize-winner Herta Müller was born a German-speaking Romanian but now lives in Berlin. In The Hunger Angel she confronts what was unmentionable, undiscussable, for her parents’ generation – their collusion in the Fascist takeover of their country and the subsequent transportation of Romanians between the ages of 17 and 45 to the Soviet labour camps. This is a novel that in part chronicles the experience of those five horrible years and in part explores the difficulty of telling the truth to those who have no imaginative hold on “where they are coming from”.

In the camp, Leo becomes used to the restrictions, the lice, the cold. It is when he returns home that he finds himself imprisoned behind stockades of secrecy; not only about the camp – which simply cannot be described to his mother and father – but also about the fact that he is gay. Had he done anything about this in the camp, it would have spelled certain death. But upon his return to Romania, new job in a crate factory and his marriage to a lightly described girl named Emma, he reverts to his old furtive cruising habits.

The German title of the book is one of those made-up compounds that Müller makes her own. Atemschaukel means something like “Breath-swing”, or “A Seesaw of breathing”. I suppose it is meant to convey the lurching of hidden emotions within Leo’s very breath as he looks back late in life at his previous existence.

In his admirable translation, Philip Boehm has selected one of the running metaphors of the book for the English title. The overwhelming sensation throughout Leo’s years in the camp is of hunger. Everyone there is obsessed by it. The everlasting obsession with the lumps of bread and watery vegetables they are given in the canteen dominates their whole existence. The Angel of Hunger takes over each prisoner and, as Rilke observed in another context, every angel is terrible. Which reader of this book will ever forget the lawyer, Paul Gast, who steals bread and soup from his emaciated wife, Heidrun, and dresses his girlfriend in his wife’s coat until Heidrun dies of cold?

This is not just a good novel, it is a great one; a work of literature that deserves a place on the shelf beside One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich but which is a much more literary and poetic piece than that of Solzhenitsyn.

Müller is through and through a stylist. Her novel is written in a taut idiomatic German, which breaks into paragraphs of wrenching, Rilkean lyricism. You hear the way that proletarian camp-occupants and brutal guards grunt to one another; you see the world, at the same time, through the eyes of this dreamy, gay adolescent narrator, who is coming to manhood in the course of his incarceration.

Boehm does a superb job of conveying the texture of Müller’s prose. Only one cavil. There is a devastating, pivotal moment when Leo is summoned to the hut-office of the “kapo”, Tur Prikulitsch. The guard hands him his post – a Red Cross postcard to which Leo’s mother has sewn the photograph of a baby and written the words: “Robert, b April 17, 1947.” Having hitherto held in his homesickness, Leo breaks down and weeps. He does not reply to the postcard for a further two years, because when he begins to analyse it he feels rejected by his mother. She has sent the curt notice of his brother’s birth and – thinks Leo – by implication she is now ready to bear his own death. The short chapter, devastating in its impact, is called “Ersatzbruder” in German. Boehm renders this “The ersatz-brother”. But this is wrong. “Ersatz” in German means substitute or replacement; but when this word is used in an English context it connotes something fake. The photo is not of a fake brother. It is of a real brother who has replaced Leo, and that is why his tears gush.

There are many sentences of this masterpiece you will want to copy out or commit to memory. One of the finest – and in a way it sums up the meaning of the entire book – is his reflection on homesickness, for which, of course, hunger was only the most painful sign: “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.”

AN Wilson’s most recent book is ‘Hitler: A Short Biography’ (HarperPress)

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