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The Hunger Angel: A Novel

Average Rating 4.5
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  • Posted October 6, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    An Excel­lent Read

    The Hunger Angel by Herta Müller is a Ger­man novel tak­ing place in a Soviet forced labor camp at the end of World War II. Ms. Müller won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Lit­er­a­ture.

    Leo Auberg was 17 when he was picked up for a 5 year sen­tence (or honor) serv­ing in a soviet forced labor camp. The labor­ers at the camp were get­ting food at a min­i­mal and “exer­cise” aplenty with­out the need to be con­cerned about hygiene.

    Leo shov­els coal, hauls mor­tar, and does other dif­fi­cult jobs but the one con­stant among all his suf­fer­ing is hunger. While his for­mer life keeps flash­ing back to him and the hope that he might return to what could or could no longer be his home and fam­ily keeps Leo alive, his imag­i­na­tion is what gives him hope.

    The Hunger Angel by Herta Müller takes place in 1945, when the Soviet Union demanded that all Roman­ian Ger­mans who are 17 to 45 years of age be relo­cated to forced labor camps in order to help rebuild the dev­as­tated nation. Accord­ing to the author’s note at the end of the book, she spent many hours talk­ing to poet Oskar Pas­tior who suf­fered under the decree. Müller filled four note­books with Mr. Pastior’s tes­ti­mony until 2006, when he sud­denly passed away.

    This is an extra­or­di­nary book about the hard­ships the Ger­man peo­ple faced after the war, as Leo Auberg, the pro­tag­o­nist states:

    "To this day, the hunger angel speaks out of your mouth. But no mat­ter what he says, this remains utterly clear:
    1 shovel load = 1 gram bread.”

    I cer­tainly got the dis­tinct feel­ing that the book was writ­ten by a poet, not so much the nar­ra­tive as the reflec­tions and pon­tif­i­ca­tions of Leo. While hunger is cer­tainly the com­mon denom­i­na­tor of the book, Leo’s imag­i­na­tion is what keeps him going through star­va­tion and hard labor.

    While this book does take place dur­ing and after World War II, I would not sug­gest to read it within the frame­work of the Holo­caust. Jews are men­tioned at the begin­ning, but then they dis­ap­pear both phys­i­cally and con­tex­tu­ally and peo­ple still do find it hard to sym­pa­thize with the suf­fer­ing of the Ger­man peo­ple in the hands of their Russ­ian conquerors.

    The 64 chap­ters in this book are very short yet vivid, some a few sen­tences long and tie up together only by the few recur­ring char­ac­ters and even fewer stringed events. The book itself is a quick read and well writ­ten, the trans­la­tion by Philip Boehm is bril­liant and really brings for­ward the “hunger angel” him­self, a spirit which hov­ers over Leo and inter­rupts the few moments in which he for­gets his grim existence.

    While I found the book an excel­lent read, it wasn’t the style I’m used to read­ing. How­ever, I’m glad I read it since I did enjoy the expe­ri­ence and, I believe, made me a bet­ter reader.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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