Friday, August 17, 2012

What We're Reading: New Fiction

The Hunger Angel by Herta Müller (translated by Philip Boehm)

Herta Müller was the 2009 recipient of the Nobel Prize in literature. This translation of The Hunger Angel was published earlier this year, and it is the first book by Müller that we have in our collection (we will have others). Müller was born in Romania in 1953, and grew up under the Communist regime of Nicolae Ceausescu. She immigrated to Germany in 1987 for political reasons. Much of her work is concerned with describing the nature of life in a totalitarian state and the character of oppression. The Hunger Angel is set in a Russian labor camp from 1945-1950. In the summer of 1944 the Red Army had advanced into the territory of Germany’s Fascist ally, Romania, and overthrown the regime of Ion Antonescu. In January of 1945 the Soviets deported all Germans living in Romania between the ages of seventeen and forty-five years of age to work in labor camps in the Soviet Union, helping to rebuild the war damaged Soviet industrial infrastructure. They kept these “prisoners of war” working at hard labor for five years. Müller’s mother was one of them. In the Communist state of Romania the labor deportation was a taboo subject, but Müller recalls conversations between adult survivors in her childhood home, most of which occurred at a time she was too young to understand. The remarkable details of camp life in The Hunger Angel come primarily from conversations she had with former deportees, and primarily from the Romanian poet Oskar Pastior who had been one of the deportees. She and Pastior had prepared extensive notes for a book they intended to write together on the experience of the camps, but Pastior died suddenly in 2006 before they had begun writing. Müller finished the book alone.

There is not much in the way of narrative structure to The Hunger Angel, and our expectation of that is chastened to some degree by the Müller’s having divided up the text into 64 relatively short chapters, each of which tends to focus impressionistically on a theme or resonant object associated with the experience of life in the labor camp, with the subsistence diet and perpetual hunger of the inmates a shadowing theme throughout the novel. The author’s primary objective is to give us an imaginative recreation of the inner experience of life in this oppressive environment. She does this through the remarkable poetic voice of her narrator, a 17-year- old named Leo Auberg who has been consigned to hard labor at the camp. There are no other fully developed characters we meet, but that’s deliberate and is meant to give us a sense of the isolation of each individual in the camp, where the issue is individual survival and contacts with others are always distanced and carefully calibrated. Müller gives us a narrator with an imaginative sensibility that enables him to invest common objects and pedestrian details with an emotive power that makes his suffering very real to us. This is a poignant novel, and its poignancy is achieved not so much from any pervasive sense of terror or impending threat of violence but rather through allowing us to understand the brutal psychological damage of oppression and the nature of the totalitarian state as it is distilled in the regime of life in the labor camp. Although the purpose of the conscription of these workers has been to rebuild Soviet war damage, we have for all the drudgery very little sense of anything being built here. What we get instead is a moving deconstruction of the human soul in a totalitarian environment.

Leo Auberg is a homosexual. Leo tells us that before the camp he was engaged in the furtive homosexual underworld of his town, and even looked at his displacement to the Soviet Union as a chance to escape the dangerous prospect of discovery in his home town. But he is involved in no liaisons at the camp, and some reviewers have criticized Müller for not integrating Leon’s sexual orientation more extensively into her story. But of course that’s the point. We are to understand that Leo is in a sense doubly oppressed. There isn’t even the opportunity for a furtive private sexual life in camp, because there is no privacy. Everyone knows about sexual encounters in the camp, and a homosexual encounter would be dangerous and punished both by fellow prisoners and by the camp command. It is unthinkable. Ultimately upon his return, the oppression of his sexual orientation leads Leo to marry and finally, under threat of discovery as his clandestine excursions resume, to leave Romania. We are to understand that there is some analogy to be made between these two manifestations of social and political repression. There has also been criticism of the concluding chapters where Leo updates us from a perspective of 60 years later on his life after the camp. This is in fact the devastating heart of this novel. There is no “home” to return to after his release from the camp because in order to survive in camp he has had to divest himself of the idea of home and isolate himself from those associations. He feels permanently exiled. The psychological defenses that became necessary in camp have become permanently etched patterns that he cannot elude the rest of his life. This is, we come to realize, the legacy of the experience of totalitarianism and oppression. There is no day of liberation.

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