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on April 25, 2012
This is both an historically important book and an engrossing read.

Leo Auberg is a teenage rebel living with his family in Romania when he is simply swept away along with many of his neighbors. For the next 5 years we are in the labor camp with him, learning to survive.

Herta Müller is such a powerful descriptive writer. She will take a simple item, like a bag of cement, and write about experiences with it so poetically that you feel you remember carrying and working with that cement yourself.

A word about the translation: it is brilliant. Müller plays with language in German and occasionally Russian and translator Philip Boehm keeps right up with her, letting us appreciate the wordplay in English.

What is shocking is that while the rest of the world was was relieved by the ending of WWII, thousands of people of Germanic descent were being snatched from their homes in Romania. In her Afterword, Müller writes that within this group, "all men and women in between seventeen and forty-five years of age were deported to forced-labor camps in the Soviet Union." Why is this not widely known?

In high school I read a lot of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (The Gulag Archipelago). No book has hit me as hard in the many years since then until The Hunger Angel.
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on May 7, 2012
This is an English translation of the German version of Atemschaukel (German Edition) by Herta Mueller. The translation is decent and the powerful poetry of self awareness comes through and carries you along on its undulating rhythms. Translating the unusual imagery in this poetic narrative is not easy, since the semantic associations and echos of the implicit meanings of the words Mueller leans on so heavily throughout are so unique they often have no family relatives in English. Atemshaukel,BreathingSwing, the title of Hunger Angel in the German version, focuses on the physical motion of the chest as we breath, swinging in and out, unattended, propelled by inner energy and organs that magically convert the meager sustenance of the camps, wild spinach, acacia flowers, camomile, even grass, into a renewal of spirit. Other metaphors; hungerangel; heartshovel; many more; pit elemental human activities against each other in unexpected contexts with the sparest of mechanical meaning. Life in forced labor camps has been reduced to the barest extreme of mechanical clinging to life. Many die, a few deaths portrayed vividly and repeatedly as memes in the story, but most are unattended in the hard scrabble attempts to stay alive in absolute obeisance to the urgent demands of the all pervasive hunger angel. Mueller brings to life the many hungers that survive even the ravages of near starvation: especially the hunger for human contact. Hunger is so demanding that interests and goals are narrowly shrunk to a laser beam focus on food. Their five year stay in the Soviet Union is called forced labor, but it seems to me that slave labor is a better description of the years in captivity, with no pay or freedoms, until the final year when conditions improved. This is a tale of slavery and brutality, and yet the slave masters appear only as shadowy and often comical figures. Shadows as guards in their towers silhouetted against the sky that is the path to freedom. Comic figures as commanders with long silly, unpronounceable names who fall asleep while the slaves and slave overseers, who are slave themselves, do the dirty manual labor or make life and death decisions with minmalist concern for individuals. All are depraved: slaves, overseer, and the masters and guards. They are villainous but only in the most antiseptic way, since they too are deprived of humanity in the novel: they steal from the state or they are distant and over exactingly fair in the distribution of the most minimal bread rations. Yet the whole is textured with humanity, at its best and worst. The story rises above one person's travails and reaches a purity of sympathy and depravity that is universal and timeless. Human relations remain paramount. There is much love of humanity in the forsaken despair of their existence. It is often furtive and surreptitious, as so much of our sex lives are. It is broken and distant and unfeeling, as their lives in slavery must be. But, for us, looking in in comfort, it is endlessly compelling and deeply involving: the opposite of the deranged fragments of healthy lives that are the only components left to these miserable zombies and walking dead. The story begins with their enslavement in the death throes of WWII as Russian armies have swept back Nazi invaders. Romanian fascists have been overthrown; Romania has switched sides; and the ethnic Germans of the area, Transylvanian Saxons and Banat Shwoveh, frantically try to escape the retributions awaiting them, but mainly are too naive or indecisive and so are caught unprepared. Obedient to authority, they are summoned to work as war reparations and they obey with all too few exceptions, just as Jews had obeyed their Gestapo orders in the same towns and villages only a few months earlier. Leo Auberg is given the best of everything available, so he carries parts of his whole family with him. A record player is converted into a leather suitcase and accompanies him throughout his journey. His grandmother says he will return, and this becomes his mantra throughout the skinandbones ordeal. But, in fact, in great irony and portent, he is eager to leave. He is gay, and hemmed in, imprisoned already, by the laws and misplaced narrow morality of the town. He has already found the joys of sex in secluded wooded areas or empty bath house saunas, and well knows the horrendous penalties if he is caught; few return from the imprisonment and those who do are forever broken. And so he goes to his Russian internment with hope and relief to get away from the claustrophobia and fear of capture; little knowing that this is the imprisonment of his fears, and he too will return where many do not, and be broken irreparably by the experience. And so, in one small chapter Herta Mueller encapsulates her own narrative of his experience and turns it from something adventitious and meaningless into a poetic expression of all mankind's strivings and shortcomings and human relations. It is a deeply penetrating story into the inner life of one young man, who becomes ageless and sexless. It is populated with a host of characters who are vivid and deeply alive, even when we know them only as extensions of Leo's constrained interactions. Arthur (Door) Prikulitsch is the kapo, enjoying life and sexual monogamy and playing with others' lives (opening and closing doors) at the expense of his own humanity and future, who becomes within the confused amorality of slavery the bearer of wisdom (All treasures have a sign that says: Here I Am.) Katy Sentry is the mirror of innocence amid the depravity and is everyone's child. Coupling overcomes all obstacles, but for Leo is a prison within the prison; since even within slavery, gay sex is a tabu enforced by death, and it keeps him distanced even from those whose human warmth he so desperately needs. Yet, it makes him the the most believable and objective of witnesses and reporters, and he sees clearly, especialy himself. Even the slaves are subject to the same inhumanity as their masters: their hunger drives husbands to steal food from wives and to punish bread theft with invigorated brutality. In this setting of despair the only command the slaves obey with relish is the destruction of lice and bed bugs. For me as a reader, this is a liberating tale. To see close up and in personal detail the enduring human vitality that can survive amid utter depravity and human oppression is as enlightening and elevating as any Pilgrim's Progress morality tale. Leo says, he can live like this and it would be a good life: he could be proud of his survival. Only poetry can plumb these depths for us, take us there so that we can extract its gold, refine it for us, and deposit us again in the mainstream of reality with a better understanding of our own aspirations, limits, and capabilities. We have only one life to live, and it is all too easily thrown away. But we are eternally constrained by our own desires and the thoughtless and arbitrary decisions of the mass of humanity that demands our conformity. And we give our assent at our peril. And so the swinging of our breathing continues.
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VINE VOICEon June 17, 2012
This is an amazing and shocking book. I was totally unaware of these forced labor camps of Germans deported from Romania just after WWII. Herta Muller makes it live in graphic detail. We follow the main character, 17-year old Leo Auberg, from his discontented home life (hiding his gay tendencies) to the labor camps. At first he is naïve enough to be happy to leave home - until reality hits him and he faces the grim life of forced labor and starvation. We see the world entirely through his eyes. Hunger, cold, exhaustion and the constant threat of brutality and death are the driving forces. The prisoners have their own moral code and survival logic. It is a fascinating study in human nature in the most dreadful of circumstances. The writing is exquisite and original and must have been very difficult to translate.

A particularly heartbreaking part of the novel is how poorly Leo adjusts to release from the camps. He cannot express emotion and his family does not know what to do with him. It is such a letdown since you longed for his freedom throughout his suffering. That seems even more tragic than his five years of suffering. He can never recover. I highly recommend this powerful, haunting novel. Food will never look the same.
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on November 23, 2012
... falsch! Grim? You betcha! Grimmer than any Grimm. Depressing? Hey, it probably wasn't the best choice I could have made for carrying around in a golf cart at Pebble Beach, waiting for doddering gazillionaires to play through. Fortunately, I'm not subject to depression by artifice; reality is adequate for my depression requirements. Disappointing? I fear so. And why? because I don't believe it. Careful now! It's not the horrors of Soviet forced labor that I doubt. Herta Müller and/or her research assistants have obviously done their research and depicted the horrors plausibly. It's Herta I don't believe, or rather it's her perverted teenage rebel Leo Auberg whose narrative voice I don't believe in.

Müller's earlier books --The Passport, The Land of Green Plums, The Appointment -- have been painfully true to their single subject: Herta Müller herself. I don't know precisely how much they were autobiographical, but it doesn't matter. They were authentic, the confession/justification of a difficult-to-nasty woman in an even nastier time and place. They were page after page of hard-to-chew bitterness but they were their own antidote, both by the necessity of recognizing our modern societal calamities and by the brilliance of their language. Herta writes sentences beautifully, describes vividly, re-invents the German language with electrifying originality. In The Hunger Angel (Atemschaukel), I fear she writes too well. She's given us crystal chandelier sort of grief, or an Art Nouveau curlicue tableau of a martyrdom. She's gone totally "literary" on us. Am I scornful of "literature"? I suppose I am, when it rings insincere.

The comparison of this novel to "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch" by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn and "The House of the Dead" by Fyodor Dostoyevsky seems inevitable. And those match-ups all point to Müller's chief weakness, the thinness of her first-person characterization of Leo Auberg. Now an old man of sixty something, Auberg describes his misery so poetically that one cannot share it but rather merely "admire" it. What's it worth to know that life in the labor camps was hell on earth? Who thought otherwise?

Possibly this narrative has a socio-political aspect that I'm doing my best to ignore. Leo Auberg and his fellow labor camp victims are almost all ethnic Germans from Romania, though a shadowy stick figure of a Jew mistaken for a German appears briefly. The Russians, faceless evil figures in uniforms, carted the Germans off to their labor camps in reprisal for Nazi atrocities. That the Romanian Germans depicted here, or in Leo's case his elders, were indeed Nazis or at least Nazi sympathizers ... well, that doesn't disqualify them from misery. Is Müller's point that "one inhumanity cancels the guilt of another"? No ... I don't THINK that's her message, but in this book it comes uncomfortably close.
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on June 23, 2012
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."

Translation

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.
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on November 1, 2015
My friend, Aileen, gave me her copy of Herta Muller's The Hunger Angel when she had finished it. It is not a book that I would have chosen myself. However, I am so glad that I read it. It is spellbinding.

The author, Herta Muller is most interesting. She was born in Romania, and grew up under the Ceausescu régime as part of the German minority that settled in the Banat region since the 18th century. Indeed, the history of her immediate family reflects the turmoils of war and displacement. Like many Banat Germans, her father volunteered for the Waffen SS during World War II and her mother, like thousands of other ethnic Germans between the ages of 17 and 45, was deported to a forced-labour camp in the Soviet Union after the war: she spent five years there.

She challenged her country's enforced silence by talking to former deportees from her own village, and through lengthy conversations with the poet Oskar Pastior about his years in a Soviet forced-labour camp. Müller took extensive notes from Pastior's testimony and after Pastior's death, Müller decided to write her book, The Hunger Angel.

The story is told by Leo Auberg, a 17-year-old who is just discovering his sexuality as something "strange, filthy, shameless and beautiful". He is gay. Leo's encounters with men in park pavilions and in the Neptune Baths would land him in prison or a penal colony if he were caught. Instead, because of his German background, his name is on a list, and he is to be deported to a forced-labour camp. The boy takes a suitcase made out of a gramophone case, and fills it with a volume of Faust, a book of poetry, aftershave, socks, a burgundy silk scarf. Every item is scrupulously detailed because each will make a difference to survival, and each object possesses a force that will only slowly disclose itself. Leo's grandmother says five words to him: Ich weiss, du kommst wieder – "I know you'll come back." This is most important of all.

To be a survivor is a complex and terrible thing. Leo has been given over to a world that those who remained behind can never imagine.Neither can they realise his anguish, disconnection and rage when he returns home five years later.

In The Hunger Angel, the fact that Leo has come back from the camp is "a stroke of crippled luck" and "a survival top that starts spinning at the least damned thing". He is not free, and he knows it. The telling of his tale in all its intricate and wretched detail is the thing that brings him to life. This detail is extraordinary. Müller credits Pastior for her knowledge of the life in the camp but the inwardness of vision throughout the story is something Müller owes to her imagination alone. This is a remarkable novel, both bleak and chastening. Leo may be at home again, but within him his experience of life in the camp lives on forever. I highly recommend this harrowing and unique book.

Valerie Penny
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on April 4, 2014
The Hunger Angel is an amazing read. The language is wonderful, and I read the English version so I am probably missing some of the original beauty of the language that it was written in. It is difficult read as the subject of the book is of a camp for ethnic Germans after WW ll by the Russians, in which they were treated cruelly. I am sure many of these Germans were pro the Nazi regime but I am sure many were not. To summarily take all 17-45 year olds into camps and implement cruel and unusual punishment runs counter to our values. The characters are fully developed and compelling. The way time and hunger and Leo's relationships are handled and written about is unique and haunting. I highly recommend this book.
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on August 23, 2015
Honestly, I have never read anything that surprised me more. Very well written and a complete revelation. I don't want to give away too much. In this case, I think the Nobel literature prize for the author was deserved!
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VINE VOICEon May 23, 2012
Leo Auberg was just seventeen when two policemen went from house to house with a list. They were rounding up people to take them to a prison camp in the Soviet Union. Leo traveled by train to the camp. Once there, he spent five grueling years in the camp. Although, Leo did not know it yet, he would have a companion with him. HIs companion would be known as the "hunger angel".

Ms. Muller is a profilic writer. She described in much detail the hunger that Leo was experiencing. I wuld have to say though that the "hunger angel" felt more like a shadow or demon then an angel. The "angel' was always around Leo poking into his brain or teasing him with the many layers of hunger.

Leo started out on the quiet side but as the story progressed, he became a strong voice and good narrator. Speaking of good voices, I thought that Philip Boehm did a nice job of translating Ms. Muller's words on page in English. This is not an easy task. I have read several books that have been translated and you can tell there was a struggle. Not to say that the translator did not do a good job as there is a fine line between trying to translate the author's story and not take away anything from the story. With this book, I felt like nothing was missing from the story and in fact, I agree with some of the other readers that the story read poetic at times. This book is worth your time and money to check out. You have nothing to lose but yourself in a good book with The Hunger Angel.
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on December 21, 2014
The Hunger Angel
Herta Muller

At the end of the Second World War, the Soviet Union required that German people from the ages of 17 to 45 be taken to labor camps where they will help to rebuild the country their countrymen destroyed. So in January, 1945, Leo Amberg packed some special things and was hauled by train to a labor camp. No talent would be needed for these people to do the mindless jobs of making bricks and other work thrust upon them. These people had no idea how long they would be in the labor camp.

When Leo’s name appeared for the labor camp, he packed a gramophone case for some of his possessions, not knowing what to expect. There he would perform whatever task the leader of his group gave him. He sometimes worked at night or sometimes in the day. Food was the money of the camp. Food was traded and for a treasure someone had brought with them and as Leo would discover, sometimes the trade was not worth the small amount of food for which he traded.

People died often in this camp. There was no real medical help for anyone. And one’s survival had to do with the work one was given (or not given), the food one could get sometimes by stealing from others in the camp. And yet there were times when Leo was free to walk into the town and barter his treasures for food. Hence the title, The Hunger Angel.

When Leo left home, his grandmother encouraged him by telling him he would come back. His daily effort to stay alive and continue to work came from that mantra, he would come back.

This is a hard book to read, partly because of the boredom of the work and also because of the hopelessness that was easy to develop as camp workers stole from one another to survive another day. Bread was money to these people. Chapter leads into chapter of what is an endless process of trying to beat death, which most lose.

Even when Leo does return home after several years of enforced labor, he finds he has a younger brother of whom he is envious because he was born after Leo left for the camp. Leo feels as though his family has changed and sometimes he thinks he would be better off dead.
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