‘The Hunger Angel’ by Herta Müller – “Hauled Off by the Russians”

 

‘The Hunger Angel’ by Herta Müller (2009) – 285 pages            Translated from the German by Philip Boehm

‘The Hunger Angel’ is a first person account of being hauled off to a Soviet gulag in a cattle car and being forced to spend four years there. A gulag was a Soviet labor camp – it was both a form of punishment and a hard work site.

The novel is based on the actual experiences of a friend of Herta Müller . ‘The Hunger Angel’ is what I would call a fictional memoir. It is probably the most vivid fictional memoir of all about what it is like to be locked up in a Soviet gulag during and after World War II for 4 years. Fictional memoirs are not usually so devastating.

In 1945 the Soviet General Vinogradov presented a demand in Stalin’s name that all Germans living in Romania be mobilized for rebuilding the war-damaged Soviet Union.

Our first person narrator Leo Auberg is only 17 years old when he is forced on to a railroad cattle car and taken from Romania to Novo-Gorloka in eastern Ukraine.

 

His overseer, who was also from Romania, was a sadist who could speak the same language as the prisoners. The prisoners, even the women who are healthy enough, shovel coal or slag or harsh chemicals.

For years now, shoveling was the only thing left to be proud of.”

The prisoners are never given enough to eat.

No words are adequate for the suffering caused by hunger.”

By Leo’s fourth year at the camp, 339 of the inmates had died, most of starvation.

Scarcely has the corpse been cleared away than it’s forgotten, because bodies that thin hardly leave any track in the snow.”

When Leo eats the frozen potato peelings from the garbage pile behind the mess hall, he remembers all the potatoes he used to eat back home.

But arriving late was bad. Then the soup was gone. Then you had nothing except the big empty night, and the lice.”

One night all the prisoners are put into a ravine and Leo thinks “This is the night we will be shot.” Then the prisoners are handed shovels which they think are to dig their own graves. However the authorities bring out some trees, black poplars, to be planted instead.

We get a full accounting of the privations of work camp life.

It’s impossible to dance without toes, so Trudi Pelikan sits on a bench off to the side, and I sit down next to her. In the first winter her toes froze. The following summer they were squashed by the lime wagon. That fall they were amputated because worms got under the bandage.”

What keeps Leo going through all these hardships are his grandmother’s words as he left, “I know you’ll come back.”

I suppose some readers might avoid ‘The Hunger Angel’ for fear that it is an account of unrelieved misery. However ‘The Hunger Angel’ is not only that; it is a perceptive person’s original provocative thoughts, feelings, and reactions to living through this ordeal.

 

Grade:    A

 

 

4 responses to this post.

  1. I have this on the TBR Tony, and it does sound powerful!

    Liked by 1 person

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  2. I think I have this on the TBR… the Ms have been relegated to a private spot in the TBR which means moving all the books in front of them to check that it’s there.
    I went through a brief phase at Goodreads marking wishlist books as ‘want to read’ when I didn’t actually have them.
    *blush* I bought so many books last year to support my favourite bookshops in Lockdown, that the books have overflowed the shelves and onto the table…

    Liked by 1 person

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    • Hi Lisa,
      Speaking of TBR, the novel ‘The Liar’s Dictionary’ by Eley Williams was on my TBR for a few months. However I started it yesterday and found after a few pages that it really didn’t suit me, so I gave up on it. So one less on my TBR.

      Liked by 1 person

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