Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Hunger Angel by Herta Müller; translated by Philip Boehm


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The book's description from the publisher's website:

A masterful new novel from the winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize, hailed for depicting the "landscape of the dispossessed" with "the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose" (Nobel Prize Committee)
It was an icy morning in January 1945 when the patrol came for seventeen-year-old Leo Auberg to deport him to a camp in the Soviet Union. Leo would spend the next five years in a coke processing plant, shoveling coal, lugging bricks, mixing mortar, and battling the relentless calculus of hunger that governed the labor colony: one shovel load of coal is worth one gram of bread.
In her new novel, Nobel laureate Herta Müller calls upon her unique combination of poetic intensity and dispassionate precision to conjure the distorted world of the labor camp in all its physical and moral absurdity. She has given Leo the language to express the inexpressible, as hunger sharpens his senses into an acuity that is both hallucinatory and profound. In scene after disorienting scene, the most ordinary objects accrue tender poignancy as they acquire new purpose—a gramophone box serves as a suitcase, a handkerchief becomes a talisman, an enormous piece of casing pipe functions as a lovers' trysting place. The heart is reduced to a pump, the breath mechanized to the rhythm of a swinging shovel, and coal, sand, and snow have a will of their own. Hunger becomes an insatiable angel who haunts the camp, but also a bare-knuckled sparring partner, delivering blows that keep Leo feeling the rawest connection to life.
Müller has distilled Leo's struggle into words of breathtaking intensity that take us on a journey far beyond the Gulag and into the depths of one man's soul.
 That which doesn't kill me...doesn't make me stronger either.

No man is an Island, entire of itself...Every man is an Island, entire of itself.
(emphasis and changes are mine)

These two quotes are simply thoughts of two individuals. Nietzsche's quote isn't even accurate ('kill' should be 'destroy'); I suppose it was changed by simply another individual to make the message more powerful And yet, people use these witticisms as guides/mental support for their lives. I really dislike these and many other 'sayings' because they're misleading and untrue. Nowhere is it more obvious than in The Hunger Angel. Soviet Union's regime and its gulags had that absolute power which could and did kill a great number of people; those who had the misfortune to come back from the dead, existed among the living as if suspended between life and death. They indeed survived the camps but returned weaker, conditioned to fear, yearning for the relief of death and not receiving it. They were little islands floating among those saved from the cruel reality of the camps and living entirely of and dependent on themselves. This is the truth Leo Auberg embodies.

When I picked up The Hunger Angel, I didn't know what to expect. I was hoping I would like it and would be able to appreciate the aspects of Herta Müller's writing that earned her the title of a Nobel Prize winner. What I didn't expect was to be stunned into silence by the power of Müller's gift. From page three, when I read

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.

I knew that, from then on, my life would be split into two phases, the life before The Hunger Angel and the life after. I knew that because those words spoken by Leo were my life, my most secret and yet most fundamental feelings that I'd always wanted to articulate and that I couldn't even express cohesively to myself. This review is the most difficult to write because The Hunger Angel became very personal to me. Reading it was an epiphanic experience. With every page, all the murky, undefinable emotions rising within me and causing me so much anguish became crystalline clear.

To avoid the danger of ending up with a mini memoir of mine, instead of a somewhat helpful review of  Ms. Müller's book, I will only say that when Leo writes about his homesickness, about displacement, about feelings of not really belonging anywhere, he writes about me as well.

Müller's writing is incredible, it has clarity and shoots meaningful images like arrows, straight through your heart. And yet, this same writing created a novel that's so layered with messages, that every time you read it, you'll find meanings and depths you hadn't the time before. Every person that reads The Hunger Angel will come away from it with a different understanding, a different message and a different interpretation from other readers.

There is one thing though that is unmistakeable and undeniable regardless of what else all who read The Hunger Angel understand from it. And that is the power of words.Words are what helps Leo survive the five years of terror and horror and I believe words propel him to live just one more day of his life after the gulag. Not being able to tell his story to anyone, facing the cruel realization that no one really wanted to listen, to know, he writes it all down. He unburdens himself of the silence he carried for so long by pouring all the words he can never speak onto paper.

There are so many weighty subjects that Herta Müller writes about in The Hunger Angel, that whole dissertations could be written about it (and no doubt they will some day soon). The life in the gulags, the loss of dignity, the hunger angel that becomes Leo's constant companion and that never goes away, even if the food is abundant, because there's always something else we'll desire and the hunger angel will be there to fuel it.

To me, it's the themes of dispossession and displacement that were crucial. Once it happens to a person, it can never be healed. Because, contrary to one of those sayings again, time doesn't always heal all wounds. Indeed, when you're uprooted, denied life where you had always belonged, not only can you spend the entire rest of your life searching for that which can never be found, but you can also,  on some subconscious level or through an upbringing doom your descendants in the way you were doomed. How am I drawing this conclusion? My great-grandparents and my grandparents were Poles living in Ukraine and I believe a few months into the WWII, they had to run, literally like thieves in the middle of the night, from the Red Army. They left everything behind, their vast lands (they were farmers), their homes, everything in them. All they could take, they carried in potato sacks on their backs. I am now 34 years old, with a family of my own and the most prominent factor present in all my life is that I never really have felt at home, felt an attachment to a place that would make me realize this is where I belong. I still don't. Most importantly, displacement isn't just geographical. It's also the displacement of the soul. And Leo is and will always remain doubly displaced: from his Romanian town and by being denied his sexuality. Leo is homosexual and that's yet another silent baggage that he carries, that will never allow him to find a place where he belongs, as long as he has to fear being discovered.

I have to finish these wandering thoughts of mine about The Hunger Angel. I would love for you to just know this: read this book not for the plot, certainly not for seat-of-the-edge suspense, and maybe not even all that much for the characters. There's no happy ending either. Read The Hunger Angel to experience the most incredible writing, to witness the work of a literary genius. Not one sentence can be skipped because they all carry meanings and when you find those meanings, which will probably in some way become personal to you gasp and hold your breath in shock. Read it also for the history that has been mostly ignored and still is. Soviet Union's communist regime with Stalin for a leader performed ethnic cleansings on an unimaginable scale. Herta Muller gives our generation an opportunity to be ignorant no longer. And don't be that person who exclaims with disdain, 'It's only fiction!'. The quote I'll share below is not the author's figment of imagination. The speech of an officer to the prisoners of the gulag, as absurd as it may sound, does give you a real taste of the ideology behind Soviet Union's communism.

An officer...gave a speech at the roll-call grounds, the Appellplatz. He spoke about peace and FUSSKULTUR...: Fusskultur strengthens our hearts. And in our hearts beats the heart of the Soviet Socialist Republics. Fusskultur steels the strength of the working class. Through Fusskultur the Soviet Union will blossom in the strength of the Communist Party and in the peace and happiness of the people.


The Hunger Angel is translated by Philip Boehm, who is an accomplished translator of works in German and Polish. He obviously performed magic when translating Muller's novel. To be put to task to translate such a complex novel, with meanings and words as the main themes, must have been awe-inspiring. You'll catch yourself forgetting that The Hunger Angel is originally written in German and thinking that maybe English is Muller's native language. And the thing I admired the most when considering Mr. Boehm's approach to this novel, is his choice of the title. Original one (Atemschaukel - breath-swing) is not easily and literally translatable into English in order to make sense, like it does in German. I know that it's just my opinion, but The Hunger Angel is the title (and what it represents throughout the novel) that was meant to be. One may wonder what sense does it make that The Hunger, that awful, persistent and never-ending sensation, is called an angel. My understanding is that firstly, as Leo personifies sensations and things and objectifies people to maybe develop some kind of mental detachment pivotal to survival, a hunger becomes a being, a companion, a presence that never leaves, the Hunger Angel. Secondly, now that it's no longer simply a bodily sensation, in the end, the Hunger Angel is the only one that never abandons Leo and lets him know that Leo's not alone in that world he no longer belongs to. Sick and twisted, yes. But that's mercy nonetheless, and angels and mercy travel in pairs.
Here I'd like to share with you some of the quotes that are especially meaningful to me.*

No words are adequate for the suffering caused by hunger. To this day I have to show hunger that I escaped his grasp. Ever since I stopped having to go hungry, I literally eat life itself. And when I eat, I am locked up inside the taste of eating. For sixty years, ever since I came back from the camp, I have been eating against starvation.

I'm always telling myself I don't have many feelings. Even when something does affect me I'm only moderately moved. I almost never cry. It's not that I'm stronger than the ones with teary eyes, I'm weaker. They have courage. When all you are is skin and bones, feelings are a brave thing. I'm more of a coward. The difference is minimal though, I just use my strength not to cry. When I do allow myself a feeling, I take the part that hurts and bandage it up with a story that doesn't cry, that doesn't dwell on homesickness.

Some people speak and sing and walk and sit and sleep and silence their homesickness, for a long time, 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.
FTC: I was provided an ARC of The Hunger Angel for review from the publisher, Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Macmillan.

* All the quotes are from an uncorrected proof and need to be verified against a finished copy for any inaccuracies.