One normally thinks of Germans as the ones who sent others to forced labor camps. But after World War II, millions of ethnic Germans fled or were expelled from Eastern Europe by the Soviets and their allies, with a couple of hundred thousand others consigned to Soviet work camps. “None of us were part of any war, but because we were Germans, the Russians considered us guilty of Hitler’s crimes,” recalls Leo Auberg, narrator of Herta Müller’s novel “The Hunger Angel.”
Müller, who won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Literature, should know. She was born in 1953 into a German family in Romania. Her mother had been deported to a labor camp after the war, where she spent five years. However, “The Hunger Angel,” translated into appropriately stark and piercing English by Philip Boehm, is not based on the experiences of the author’s mother, but on those of the late Romanian German poet Oskar Pastior. The story, narrated by an aged Leo looking back on a five-year ordeal he endured 60 years ago, examines the grim situation in a civilian camp established alongside a coal plant.
At first, 17-year-old Leo is too naïve to be believable. He welcomes news that his name is on the Russians’ list of deportees from Romania, because he is gay and feels stifled in his “thimble of a town.” He is quickly disabused of whatever foolish notions he entertains about the far-off and exotic-sounding place to which he and many others are sent.
As fiction, “The Hunger Angel” emerges as only intermittently successful. The subordination of character development to descriptions of camp conditions hampers the story irrevocably, serving up chapter after chapter of variations on the same theme. A staccato narrative style exacerbates matters by denying the story any sort of rhythm. It is as though Müller is more intent on cramming in as many aspects of the misery of camp life, rather than finessing them into a novel.
What remains is a host of arresting images, including “the empty waiting room in the stomach,” Leo’s recollection of how “[m]y Adam’s apple bobbed up and down under my chin as though I’d swallowed my elbow,” and a man who “stole his wife’s soup right out of her bowl until she could no longer get out of bed and died because she couldn’t help it.” Lurking in the background is the hunger angel, who stalks the camp’s inmates. The book’s title character, a protean specter that appears as a white hare in the wasted-away cheeks of anyone on the verge of starving to death, will not soon be forgotten.
The literary shortcomings of “The Hunger Angel” are also mitigated in part by the book’s undeniable historical value. Müller, whose best-known novels, “The Land of Green Plums” and “The Appointment,” both draw on her experiences as a German political dissident in communist Romania, here examines an episode that preceded her birth. Relying in large part on the recollections of the late Pastior, with whom Müller originally intended to co-author this book, she convincingly re-creates a surreal time and an absurd place. “The Hunger Angel” illumines a terrifying and inhuman phenomenon that for decades was sanitized by its orchestrators, seldom memorialized by its victims, and glossed over if not ignored outright by a postwar, Nazism-weary world unsure of how to approach the mistreatment of Germans.Rayyan Al-Shawaf, a writer and book critic in Beirut, can be reached at calaboose@gmail .com.