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.
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."
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.
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.
on December 21, 2014
The Hunger Angel
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.