Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Hunger Angel - Herta Müller

" I know you will return"

This book came out in 2009, the year she won the Nobel Prize for Literature, adding on to her status as a phenomenal writer. The English translation, however, came only after three years and for a the impression that one carried from all those rave reviews are not un-founded. She has a distinct voice. The voice is not of complain or bad taste. It has a sense of detachment to it, despite the nature of the plot and subject of her novel. I have read only one other book, "the land of green plums", the same year she won her Nobel and was impressed with this writer.

17 year old Leo Auburg was deported to the Soviet Labour Camp, picked up from Romania with their advance towards Berlin towards the end of the WW II.  As a part of "re-building" the nation, from  the destruction during the WW, Soviet Union, needed labour to help them in their effort .The German speaking inhabitants from the liberated area, were sent to the Gulag for 5 years of forced labour. 

Leo, attracted to men and started discovering his sexuality, at the park pavilions, the neptune baths and elsewhere.  But, "every rendezvous could have landed me in prison. Minimum 5 years, if I had been caught". But that was not needed.  "I was on the Russian's list. And that was that".   "It was three in the morning, on the fifteenth of January, 1945, when the patrol came for me. The cold was getting worse; it was -15 C".  Leo, spent his next 5 years in a coke plant, shoveling coal, mixing cement and other trivial work in a camp shared by many like him.  "I know you will return" was the departing words of his grand mother.

Reminiscence of the trip to the concentration camp, packed in the train compartment with no place to stretch, into the cold blue sky, in the dead of winter. A travel lasted 12-14 days with multiple stop. The contingent was deported at the camp site. The rest is as good as one can imagine. All detention camps are the same.  Call them concentration camps, labour camps or Guantenamo. Humiliation, pain, injury, freezing cold,lice, deceases, death are their constant companion. However, instead of the atrocities and the gory images of torture and submission, the narrator focusses his attention on what affect them the most.  As Leo explains, "all you can say about yourself is that you're hungry. If you can't think of anything else. you mouth begin to expand, its roof rises to  the top of your skull, all senses alert for food. When you can no longer bear th hunger, your whole head is racked by pain..your cheek wither.."

The "Hunger Angel" which torments them through out, made them do all those inhuman things. From robbery, theft, begging, selling coal and themselves ( the women) apart from  other products from the camp in the open market for anything edible, to the random fights within the camp at the eating hall.   "Every person with chronic hunger has his preferred eating words, some rare, some common, and some in constant use. Each person thinks a different word tastes best".  Every interaction, connection and relation has something to do with hunger. "Hunger is an object. The angel has climbed into my brain. The angel doesn't think. He thinks straight."

Driven by hunger, Leo and the rest live the rest of their days. Every thing else is immaterial. The cold, the lice, the cold, or the books that was brought ( whose pages are used for rolling cigarettes and or as toilet paper).  Every thing you do is measured against the food. One shovel of coal equals to one gram of bread. Many perish, few decided to end their own life, but those who survive, carry the hunger into the world they live post release. To be a survivor is also not easy. The days of hardship torments you for ages as we have seen in many holocaust cases. There is nothing to speak, nothing to remember. 'I carry silent baggage. I have packed myself into silence so deeply and for so long that I can never unpack myself using words. When I speak, I only pack myself a little differently."

 "The deportations were a taboo subject because they recalled Romania's fascist past." recounts Muller in her afterwords. Her own mother, spent 5 years in one such camp. The book however, is based on another victim, a poet Oscar Pasitor. The idea, she says, was to collaborate and develop into a book. The death of Pasitor, made this a individual effort from Muller, using the notes she wrote from their multiple interaction. While the details of the camp are from Pasitor and her mother's experience, the insight and the language is her own. The gruesome reality and the beauty of the fictional elements have to be managed with some clever handling, which is what Herta Muller has achieved.

Brilliantly crafted and narrated book. Her sparse use of words, the intensity of the subject and narration, the 'monkish' detachment' to her characters and the lyrical prose  makes her one of the best contemporary writers. While, this is very good, I thought "The Land of Green Plums" was a notch better to this one.
The Hunger Angel ( 2009 )

Herta Müller ( translated from German by Philip Boehm 2012 )

Portobello Books

290 Pages
Guardian, Telegraph,,Independent, NY Times

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