Romanian-born Herta Müller is the winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Literature, as well as the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and the European Literature Prize. She is the author of, among other books, The Land of Green Plums and The Appointment.
"A wonderful, passionate, poetic work of literature...Herta Muller is a writer who releases great emotional power through a highly sophisticated, image studded, and often expressionistic prose.”
"A work of rare force, a feat of sustained and overpowering poetry…Muller has the ability to distil concrete objects into language of the greatest intensity and to sear these objects on to the reader’s mind."
"A phenomenal, moving and humbling novel."
When I first started reading The Hunger Angel by Herta Müller, I found myself thinking of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. I think most could agree that there are certainly similarities. Both detail life in a Russian labor camp. Of course, there are quite a few differences as well.
To begin with, Ivan was sentenced to his labor camp for supposedly being a spy because he’d been captured by the Germans during WWII. Müller’s Leo, however, was guilty of nothing more than being a German living in Romania when Russia demanded slave labor as war reparations. Leo had done nothing. He just seems randomly picked at endure atrocities while his family, and others, stay at home.
Regardless of that, though, I don’t think anyone could argue that Solzhenitsyn could find any fault with Müller’s vision of the labor camps. She may not have experienced such camps firsthand the way that Solzhenitsyn did, but she wonderfully uses Leo’s eyes to capture the gritty bareness of that kind of daily horror and deprivation, life reduced down to only the notes concerned with immediate survival:
The first decision of the day was: Am I steadfast enough to not eat my entire portion at breakfast with my cabbage soup. Can I, in all my hunger, save a little piece for the evening. At midday there was nothing to decide, since we were at work and there was no meal. In the evening after work, assuming I’d been steadfast in the morning, came the second decision: Am I steadfast enough just to check that my saved bread is still under my pillow, only look and nothing more. Can I hold off eating it until I’m in the mess hall, after evening roll call, which could take another two hours, or even longer.
If I hadn’t been steadfast in the morning, I had no leftover bread in the evening and no decision to make. Then I would fill my spoon just halfway and slurp deeply. I had learned to eat slowly, to swallow a little spit after every spoonful of soup…[s]pit makes the soup longer, and going to bed early makes the hunger shorter.
I went to bed early but woke up constantly, because my throat was swollen and pulsing. Whether I kept my eyes open or closed, whether I tossed around or stared at the lightbulb, whether someone was snoring as if he were downing, whether the rubber worm from the cuckoo clock was rattling or not–the night was boundlessly vast, and in the night Fenya’s bread cloths were endlessly large, and beneath them lay the abundant, unreachable bread.
However, one of the aspects that struck me as most different from works such as One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is how this is only part of Leo’s view. Though so much is muted for him to only immediate concerns by his hunger, his mind takes amazing flights. He fights against hunger with thoughts of food and imagines the lives of the camp inmates as controlled and manipulated by the Hunger Angel:
One thing is certain, I thought: the hunger angel knows who his accomplices are. He pampers them and then drops them. Then they shatter. And he with them. He’s made of the same flesh that he’s deceiving. This is consistent with his lever principle.
And what am I to say to that now…And it seems to me that if someone is inclined to talk about it later, there’s nothing that can’t be included: the hunger angel thinks straight, he’s never absent, he doesn’t go away but comes back, he knows his direction and he knows my boundaries, he knows where I come from and what he does to me, he walks to one side with open eyes, he never denies his own existence, he’s disgustingly personal, his sleep is transparent, he’s an expert in orach, sugar, and salt, lice and homesickness, he has water in his belly and in his legs.
All you can do is list.
If you don’t let go, things will only be half as bad, you think. To this day, the hunger angel speaks out of your mouth. But no matter what he says, this remains utterly clear:
1 shovel load = 1 gram bread.
This alternation between the grittily real and the darkly symbolic is utterly different from Solzhenitsyn. For me, it’s where the real beauty of The Hunger Angel comes . . . and its most touching humanity. I’ve certainly never endured something like this, but wouldn’t the human mind be unable to decide between bare survival and escape into fancy? Perhaps endlessly oscillating between the two since there is nowhere else to go? I can only imagine. Regardless, this makes for some amazing prose and a novel you won’t want to miss.