Monday, May 28, 2012

Herta Müller’s Hunger Angel

Herta Müller’s The Hunger Angel, which I read in Philip Boehm’s translation of the original German Atemschaukel, is a painful but frighteningly lovely account of a young man’s internment in a Soviet labor camp after World War 2. Leo Auberg, who calls himself a Transylvanian Saxon, tells the story of his travel to the camp, his years spent there with coal, and his return to his family in Romania, to, among people, the grandmother who’d said “I KNOW YOU’LL BE BACK” and the “ersatz-brother Robert,” born while Leo was away. I think the term “ersatz-brother” gives a nice feel for the sort of dark humor Müller brings to the book, with, of course, crucial help from Boehm.

As a veteran of Russian camp fiction, the book took me back to Varlam Shalamov (for Müller’s brief, stabbing vignettes) and Solzhenitsyn (for Leo’s ability to find moments of relative happiness and his fear of freedom “outside”). But what struck me most about the book—probably largely because of my own interests—was Müller’s conscious use of language, both as a creative tool for herself as a writer and as a theme for Leo. Though her hunger angels, who hover over each prisoner, are strong, her use of language is even stronger as she creates ways to write about horrible experiences. Here are a few examples, plus some commentary from Boehm:

The Sound of Russian!: Early in the book, Leo says that “The Russian commands sound like the name of the camp commandant, Shishtvanyonov: a gnashing and sputtering collection of ch, sh, tch, shch… After a while the commands just sounds like a constant clearing of the throat—coughing, sneezing, nose blowing, hacking up mucus.”

As a Russian teacher who often tells her students not to make the sound kh so gutturally that they sound as if they’re trying to cough something up, this passage, well, struck me as a wonderful combination of finding a way to describe a language’s sound while finding a way to express the newness and unusualness of the sounds for Leo’s group. I even brought the book in to read the paragraph to my first-year Russian students, who’d commented on Russian’s harsher qualities.

A Mix of Languages/Hunger Words: A single word can generate a lot of thought for Leo: in “the skinandbones time,” Leo says the prisoners are given “kapusta,” cabbage, though “cabbage soup in Russian means soup that often has no cabbage at all,” a subversion of language. Leo then goes on to explain that “cap” in Romanian is “head” and “pusta” is the Great Hungarian Plain. “The camp is as Russian as the cabbage soup, but we think these things up in German,” he tells us. Leo then goes on to say that “kapusta” isn’t a hunger word… so he lists hunger words, words like mincemeat, hasenpfeffer, and haunch of venison, that inspire tastes in the mouth and “feed the imagination… Each person thinks a different word tastes best.” There’s also an episode a couple pages later where Leo is caught, by the afore-mentioned Shishtvanyonov, carrying cabbage [sic?] soup in bottles. Leo says he wants to bring the soup home. Though he’s not sure why he saved the soup, Leo reinvents the soup as a medicine, saving himself from punishment. Conclusion: the word “kapusta” can signify many things.

Homesickness & Parasites: For me, one of the saddest uses of language involved “homesickness” (mentioned as “heimweh”) as a euphemism for problems like lice, bedbugs, and hunger. A few pages later, Leo notes his personal uses of words and the separation of the words from what they signify, offering the example of the Russian “vosh’,” which he uses for bedbugs and lice, not remembering the meaning of “vosh’”to Russians. “Maybe the word can’t tell one from the other. But I can,” he says.

Also: The Cuckoo Clock: I have to mention that I thought Müller did nicely bringing clocks and the passage of time into the book, too. A chapter in the first half of the book is called “On the phantom pain of the cuckoo clock.” In it, Leo wonders, “Why did we need a cuckoo clock here. Not to measure the time.” Leo concludes that the barracks clock belongs to the hunger angel, saying a certain question [which invokes superstition] is most important, “Cuckoo, how much longer will I live.” When Leo returns home, alive, though many of his campmates have died, “The clock ticked away beside the wardrobe.”

To Summarize: The Hunger Angel felt especially successful to me because Müller balances the harshness of reality—camp deaths, camp privations, camp parasites—with a linguistic playfulness that simultaneously reflects and rejects that same reality. Episodes of absurdity mix with harshness, simultaneously giving the novel an air of reality and abstraction, as well as some wonderfully dark humor.

Finally, I want to say that I think Boehm’s translation finds a consistent voice, both fluid and linguistically marked, for Leo. Boehm quotes Leo in his Translator’s Note, “I carry silent baggage. I have packed myself into silence so deeply and for so long that I can never unpack myself using words.” Boehm then writes of Müller, “In one novel after the other, it has been Herta Müller’s special calling to find words for the displacement of the soul among victims of totalitarianism.”

Disclaimers: I received a review copy of The Hunger Angel from publisher HenryHolt. Thank you very much!

Up Next: I’ve had a hard time finding something to follow The Hunger Angel… so settled on something predictable, another Swedish murder mystery. My next post won’t appear until mid-June, after BookExpo America.


  1. You make me want to rush to start this one, it sounds lovely. I supposed Leo is the brooding type? I love your analysis of the language. I will be starting this title sooner than I expected.

  2. I think you'll appreciate this one, Amy. And I think the answer to your question is yes...