No, this is not about the popular novel The Hunger Games, but about The Hunger Angel, a novel by Romanian writer Herta Mueller (winner of the Nobel Prize) and translated by Philip Boehm.
It follows the life of Leo Auberg, who at 17 was deported to a forced labor camp in the Soviet Union following World War II. For the next five years he works his daily shift loading bricks, shoveling coal, making cement blocks, hauling slog from a coke furnace – all on an empty stomach.
The hunger angel is his constant companion, reenforcing the only mathematical equation important to camp inmates: one shovel load = one gram of bread. Every inmate has a hunger angel and all the hunger angels know one another.
I was drawn to this book because seven of my mother’s sisters and several brothers as well as other relatives spent a decade or more in forced labor in the Soviet Union following World War II. The war was over, but the Stalinist regime was not finished with former citizens who happened to have German origins. It shipped them by the thousands into the Siberian taiga to develop its resources.
Mueller bases her novel on interviews with poet Oskar Pastior, who died before she could finish a book about him. This novel came out of her many notes. It reminded me of Alexander Soltzhenitzyn’s novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch which follows Ivan, a simple peasant, through one “good” day in a forced labor camp. It ends when he finds an eye of a fish in his thin soup that evening – a protein bonus.
The hunger angel in Mueller’s novel is not your usual extraterrestrial being in flimsy white robe and feathery wings, playing a harp, but chronic hunger that makes you sick with all kinds of illness. This hunger angel is always new, always growing, never tired.
The hunger angel leads you to the garbage dump to hunt for frozen potato peels. At the end of day it crawls into your bunk with you even as you climb into your hunger.
Hunger speaks through your mouth when you are a slave laborer. It makes the sexes indistinguishable after a while.
Recipes are the jokes of the hunger angel. Lice and bedbugs are constant companions. In such a place where hunger permeates everything, dreams, imagination and reality are of one piece.
Hunger owns you, always whispering, “How much longer will you survive?” The hunger angel sees you dead. Camp ethics make stealing another person’s bread a crime of the highest kind.
But Leo never totally despairs. Like Solzhenitsyn’s Ivan who takes pride in his work, menial as it may be, he takes pride in his work, even shoveling coal. “Every shift is a work of art.”
This importance of hanging onto one’s self-respect is a theme in other literature with similar settings. Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl who spent years in a Nazi concentration camp because he was Jewish writes in Man’s Search for Meaning that those who did not think life expected anything of them in these grim circumstances were the first to die.
Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a futuristic novel about a time when any woman with a viable womb is forcibly enlisted to bear children in the land of Gilead, a parody of Old Testament culture, and systematically bred. The main character, while waiting for the monthly insemination in her cell, is buoyed up by the tiny Latin words scratched on her closet wall, “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.” You can survive this.
In Mueller's novel the other main characters emerge through Leo's eyes: Tur, the capo, or gang boss, who holds all power of life and death, in his hands; Fenya, the woman who weighs the daily bread allotment of 800 grams, depending on the type of work, and others.
What keeps the young man alive are his grandmother’s words “You will return.” At the end of his sentence, Leo returns home to his parents and discovers, to his dismay, he has lost much, including his ability to connect to people, his table manners--he doesn’t know how to use a knife and fork. He misses his former companions in the camp, the “heart-shovel” he used to shovel coal.
Several decades later he admits that recovering the stolen years is almost impossible. Coming back from such an experience is “a stroke of crippled luck” for which he is thankful. He was there -- but he is stuck there. The camp mindset won’t leave him. It has left an indelible mark on him.
The capo and the hunger angel handed him a dowry upon his release: binding habits including “My steep-sided hollowness, I’m all spooned out, hard-pressed on the outside and empty on the inside ever since I no longer have to go hungry.”
This is a book to savor word by word for its rich poetic intensity and significant insights into what hardships imposed by a fellow human being do to a soul.
I am working on a biography of one of aunt who spent eleven years in forced labor in Kirov near the Siberian border. She was well acquainted with the hunger angel. Mennonite World Review is presently serializing a short version of her story which she sent to me in letters over several years.