The Hunger Angel by Herta Muller, translated by Philip Boehm (Metropolitan Books, 304 pages, $26)
Language, the text, speaks itself this is the great dilemma to which theories of realism (always indifferent to language and languages) close their eyes.
Oskar Pastior, German-Romanian poet
In 1989, during the week that Communism collapsed in Hungary, my wife, Laura, and I roamed the streets of Budapest, electrified by the jubilant air of liberation.
The dull-gray tenement where we were staying glistened with a new-found patina of freedom. Hungarians sailed along sidewalks, strutted past storefronts, giddy from the rush of their autonomy: What is this thing that has happened to us? And what are we supposed to do with it?
Two years earlier, the German-speaking novelist Herta Muller had answered those questions. She had safely slipped past the secret police of her native Romania into the democratic haven of West Germany.
Little did I realize at the time in Budapest just how brutally repressive Nicolae Ceausescus regime had been in Romania, Hungarys neighbor to the east the most ruthless Soviet puppet state in Eastern Europe, by some accounts.
But Muller knew. As part of Romanias German minority and a member of the literary circle Aktionsgruppe Banat, she had eaten her daily bread of suspicion, interrogation and lies.
Authorities routinely threatened to throw her in the river. Members of the Securitate, Romanias secret police, systematically stalked and assaulted her. They accused her of spying on her co-workers, then humiliated her for not spying. They waged a relentless war of psychological terror that only the strongest personality could withstand.
The secret is not to go mad, one of her protagonists proclaims. Somehow, Muller learned the secret.
She also knew what to do with her freedom: write, to ever-growing accolades from German-speaking audiences. Literature was her redemption existentially, socially, metaphysically. She wrote so that I can nevertheless be certain that I am still myself, that I exist.
Then, almost 20 years to the day after Communisms death rattle in Europe, Muller won the Nobel Prize in literature.
Despite the endless games of second-guessing that titillate American critics whenever a European writer claims the prize, no one can seriously question Mullers choice after reading The Hunger Angel, the stunning, exhilarating, heartbreaking culmination of her work as a novelist, published in Germany just months before the prize was announced.
A 300-page prose poem of resistance to totalitarian repression, the book is a haunting paean to the human angel the inventive, imaginative, invincible force that transcends suffering and abasement, that defies depersonalization and deprivation to survive, and even thrive: I am not only my flesh. I am something else and wont let go.
There are words that have me as their target, that seem created solely for my re-deportation not counting the word RE-DEPORTATION. That word would be of no use if I were re-deported. Another useless word is MEMORY.
Shuffling around his apartment in Graz, Austria, and now well into his 70s, Leo Auberg remembers, even though it is against my will that I have to remember. And even if I didnt have to, but wanted to, Id rather not have to want to.
He remembers being deported at age 17 to a labor camp on the Baragan steppe of Ukraine, sentenced to five years of soul-crushing work for being German: shoveling coal, bearing bricks, slogging through slag, and fighting off the Hunger Angel, the personification of the savage, all-consuming desire to eat. The logic of the Hunger Angel is horrible, yet elegantly simple, he tells us: one shovel load of coal equals one gram of bread.
He remembers converting a gramophone box into a suitcase before he left his village for the camp.
He remembers packing a light overcoat, a fancy coat with velvet collar, knickers, leather gaiters, green woolen gloves, a burgundy silk scarf, a toilet kit, and four books a cloth-bound edition of Faust, Zarathustra, and two volumes of poetry.
He remembers his grandmothers parting words:
I know youll come back.
He remembers other, useless words: DEPORTATION, RECONSTRUCTION, EXPERIENCE, HARM.
He remembers how the Hunger Angel had his jewels. And we had our mouths, which had grown so high and hollow that our steps echoed inside. A bright void in the skull, as if wed swallowed too much glaring light. . . . Until you no longer have a brain inside your head, only the hunger echo.
He remembers everything, despite himself: a personal indictment of Romanias political sadism, as it switched allegiances in World War II from Nazism to Stalinism, then deported its German minority to penal colonies to pay for the collective guilt of the Nazis.
He remembers heart-shovels, bed bugs and lice; chemicals, cinders and sludge; sugar, potatoes and salt.
He remembers that the things that last never squander themselves, they need only one unchanging connection to the world.
He remembers what is written on his treasures as an old man: not I WAS THERE, but THERE IM STUCK.
He remembers the dead.
Vanquished by the Hunger Angel.
Im riding home through the sky on a white pig. From the air its easy to make out the land below, the boundaries look right, the plots are even fenced in. But the land is dotted with ownerless suitcases, and ownerless sheep are grazing among the suitcases. Hanging from their necks are fir cones that ring like little bells.
In an afterword, Muller explains that many of the experiences recounted in The Hunger Angel sprang from her interviews with the poet Oskar Pastior, who at 17 was deported from Mullers village in the Banat region of Romania.
Muller was so moved by Pastiors reminiscences, by his deeply imagistic retelling of the cruelty and crudity, the desolation and destitution, the alienation and murderous rage of everyday life in exile, that she planned to collaborate with him on the novel.
But when Pastior died unexpectedly in 2006, Muller spent a year of literary soul-searching, unsure of herself, before finally resolving to write the book on her own.
The result is a remarkable re-creation of the novel as a meditative form as much music as exposition, as much mood as character and plot, as much lyricism as prose narrative.
What Muller discovered in Pastiors anti-realistic poetics was a correlate to her own art of misdirection under the Securitates censorious eye: Nothing meant what it said; all was insinuation and association, to be deciphered by a prescient reader, or no one at all.
The Hunger Angel thus asks us to suspend our conventional expectations of fiction. The book builds on a process of accumulation, mortaring one anecdote upon another to create an inward sensibility that detaches itself from the drudgery that leads some prisoners to suicide, others to apparent homicide, and most to a desultory existence of exhaustion hoarding bread, lusting for potatoes, slinging coal.
Sixty years later, Leo remembers all of it: dreams, horrors and delights. His memories overflow with an evanescent, ghostly meaning allusive and elusive, steeped in the sensuous metaphors of Romanian village life.
His is a different kind of Hunger Angel, a hunger for creativity and poetry, for the surprisingly playful kingdom of the useful word:
I am a calf in Sweden and a calf always does the same thing upon entering its hotel room before anything else, it looks under the pillow to make sure the bread is still there.