Half-lives in the shadow of starvation
The Hunger Angel
‘ NEVER was I so resolutely opposed to death as in the five years in the camp. To combat death you don’t need much of a life, just one that isn’t yet finished.’’ So says Leo Auberg, the protagonist-narrator of The Hunger Angel, a new novel by the Romanian writer Herta Muller, who was awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Literature.
The novel opens as war ends. The victorious Russians are rounding up ethnic Germans from eastern Europe and the Balkans and deporting them to labour camps in the Soviet Union. It is part of a ‘‘ war reparation’’ program, which doesn’t lack irony, considering tens of thousands of lives are lost or damaged beyond repair in the process.
These people are deported not because of something they did, but because of what they are: Germans. ‘‘ None of us were part of any war, but because we were Germans, the Russians considered us guilty of Hitler’s crimes,’’ Auberg says.
Once in the Soviet camps, these people constituted a huge source of slave labour, to be used in agriculture, mining, construction. Yet, in a certain sense, ‘‘ slave labour’’ is a nice way of putting it. To stay productive, slaves are normally fed, but the camp inmates are barely fed. Each receives daily a slice of bread and cabbage soup, which is just enough to make them realise how hungry they are. Auberg calls his time in the camp ‘‘ the eternity of cabbage soup’’. Every day, after long working hours, the inmates have to start looking for food, scavenging or begging.
In the tradition of camp literature, Muller’s novel covers a number of predictable themes: the guards’ brutality, inhuman working conditions, inmates’ physical and psychological degradation, the few moments of saving grace, the many of ultimate disgrace.
Yet what makes her approach distinct is the angle from which she chooses to tell her story: every aspect of existence in the camp is considered from the perspective of hunger. Life in the camp is, above all, life in the shadow of death by starvation. What Muller offers, as a result, is an ample phenomenology of hunger, the likeness of which probably has not been seen in European literature since Knut Hamsun’s Hunger (1890). By Herta Muller Translated by Philip Boehm Granta, 304pp, $29.95
It’s easy to think of hunger as something simple, monolithic, one-sided. Nothing could be further from truth: there are different kinds of hunger, and different degrees of each. There is, for example, ‘‘ a hunger that can make you sick with hunger ... it comes in addition to the hunger you already feel ... there is a hunger which is always new, which grows insatiably, which pounces on the neverending old hunger that already took such effort to tame’’.
At its most extreme, hunger is not about food and feeding any more, but a force that takes control of your whole being: you don’t have hunger, the hunger has you. Hunger is a merciless coloniser of bodies and minds, it is dehumanisation by another name, its victims end up in a space where there is neither shame nor embarrassment. One day at the communal bath, Auberg notices: ‘‘ Bent, mangy figures, in our nakedness we looked like worn-out draught animals. But no one was ashamed. What is there to be ashamed of when you no longer have a body?’’ Hunger eats at you until nothing is left, not even the marks of your gender: ‘‘ Half-starved humans are really neither masculine nor feminine but genderless, like objects.’’
Hunger is such a frightful presence in the camp that Auberg ends up showing it reverence as if it were divine, as though it were an angel. Angels are distant and close at the same time, a mixture of familiar and foreign, powerful beyond measure: they can spare you, or crush you at any time.
It is the hunger angel, not the Soviets, who rules the camp with an iron fist. An absolute, maddened tyrant, it devours, cannibalises, molests whatever comes its way: ‘‘ Because the skinandbones people were sexless to each other, the hunger angel coupled with everyone.’’
Muller’s mother was interned in a Soviet labour camp, but she rarely spoke about it. It was not from her that the novelist learned