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19 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A poetic encounter with inhumanity as a human condition., May 7, 2012
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This review is from: The Hunger Angel: A Novel (Hardcover)
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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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: May 11, 2012, 2:10:35 AM PDT
Jim Roberts says:
A review as brilliant as the book!

In reply to an earlier post on May 11, 2012, 9:00:22 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on May 11, 2012, 9:02:30 AM PDT
Thanks. This lets me add a note that I actually got Tur Prikulitsch's comment a little wrong, and it is also one of the few humorous moments in the book: what he says is Towaritsch in his ethnic German " Do war isch" which I also translated a little wrong: "Here I Was", rather than "HERE I AM." It may only be humorous to me, because I can actually hear the dialect when I say Towaritsch, which of course is the russian for Comrade, as in the honorific for the commander of the camp. Hmmm ... hard to explain humor, isn't it!
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