Half-lives in the shadow of star­va­tion

The Hunger An­gel

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Cos­tica Bra­datan

‘ 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

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