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Herta Müller: Atemschaukel (The Hunger Angel)

The novel of the Soviet labour camp is well-known, thanks to Solzhenitsyn, though he is not the only writer of this type of novel. There is one other such novel on this site and now here is another one, albeit told not from the point of view of Soviet dissidents, but from the point of view of a German-Romanian. This was the novel that gave Müller her first real fame in Germany, presumably, at least in part, as such novels confirm what we in the West feel, namely that the Russians were (and perhaps still are) evil oppressors. In this case, the German-Romanians were sent off to labour camps, purely because they were ethnically German, not because they had necessarily done anything wrong. The father of the narrator was and out-and-out Nazi supporter, as were other German-Romanians, but the main crime of the narrator did not involve the Nazis but, rather, casual homosexual encounters, which, had he been caught (which he was not) would have resulted in a prison sentence.

The narrator is Leopold Auberg, seventeen years old when the novel starts. He is Romanian but part of the German community in Romania. When the Russians recapture Romania from the Germans during World War II, many (everyone between the age of seventeen and forty-five) of the Germans in Romania are rounded up and sent off to labour camps in Russia. They all seem to take it quite stoically. We only learn of one German who tries to hide and she hides in a hole under the shed in her garden but has to come out, as the fresh snow reveals where her mother had been walking to bring her food. They are all taken to a train and put in wagons with limited facilities and limited food and spend nearly two weeks in the train.

Inevitably, much of the book concerns how Leopold and others survive while. of course, others do not. As the English title indicates, there is the perennial hunger angel, an imaginary angel which both emphasises their hunger while, at the same time, keeping them alive, as they strive to satisfy that hunger. They are given a limited amount of bread in the morning (the quantity depends on the nature of the work they do) and some weak soup in the evening and that is it. The rest of the time they have to forage in the fairly inhospitable Russian wilderness or go begging in the nearby but poor Russian village. Neither of these tactics is particularly rewarding. Stealing is unacceptable and one man who does is caught is badly beaten up.

We follow not only their food issues but many other aspects of the camp, from the brutality of the guards and trusties to the various work assignments, from their clothing to their memories of life before the camp and under occupation. They eventually learn that they are in a town called Novo-Gorlovka, which may or may not be this town. Wherever it is and whatever it is, it is remote and gets very cold in winter. Death stalks the camp. On one occasion, they are taken out to dig holes in the depths of winter. They are convinced that that they are digging their own graves and that they are about to be shot but it turns out that they are merely planting trees (for which it turns out to be too cold). On one occasion, we witness a woman who seems to suddenly have some sort of fit and falls in the cement pit where they watch her slowly drown. Indeed, Leopold tells us of the deaths of the first ones of their group to die, including the woman drowned in the pit, another crushed by two coal cars and one buried alive in the cement tower.

There are a few minor victories. He is at one time able to go to the market and finds a ten ruble note. He buys food which he hopes to keep for later but ends up eating it all and then vomiting it all up on the way home. On another occasion he is sent to work in a potato field, with a group of women. The women and the guard go home and he is left to make his own way back to the prison. Before he does, he manages to hide 237 potatoes in his clothing which he somehow smuggles into the camp. He even manages to get some branches into the camp to make a Christmas tree. The last year – the fifth – things do get better, as they are paid for their work and can finally buy food.

Eventually, they are released and manage to find their way home but things are not necessarily easy there. His family thought he was dead but they do not really welcome him back. He gets a job and even gets a girlfriend, Emma, whom he marries. But he feels a stanger, different, and he finally goes off to Vienna – without Emma.

This is certainly a well-written novel and will certainly appeal to those who want to read about the evils of the Soviet Empire. But it is a labour camp novel and what Leopold suffers is what others have suffered and we have read about – cold, hunger, brutality, absence from home and family. We are now well aware of the evils of the Soviet Union and I am not sure that this adds to our sum of knowledge, if we have read Solzhenitsyn and others. However, this novel did propel Müller into the ranks of the top novelists and helped her win the Nobel Prize.

Publishing history

First published 2009 by Hanser Verlag
First English translation by Metropolitan Books in 2009