Laboring in the Gray Zone: A Review of Herta Müller’s The Hunger Angel

by Okla Elliott

Filed under: Blog |

When Herta Müller won the Nobel Prize in 2009, many readers had never heard of her, despite a modicum of acclaim in the German press and despite having already had four novels translated into English. There were some who complained that this was another political pick by the Nobel Committee; Müller was, after all, both from Romania (an under-represented nation on the literary scene) and a woman (an under-represented group on the list of Nobel Laureates). Despite the Nobel Prize’s less-than-perfect track record at picking great writers, I have only one response to this complaint: can’t a prize committee pick an excellent author who also happens not to be a man from a major Western nation? In the case of Müller, the answer is a resounding yes. That said, I will leave the question of why Müller was selected to be a Nobel Laureate for others to fret over, and instead focus on The Hunger Angel, a book that is considered by many to be her strongest work.

The structure of The Hunger Angel is central to Müller’s attempt to depict the lived life of prisoners suffering under the daily trauma of a labor camp. The Hunger Angel is a novel-in-stories, but one in which each themed lyric story builds on the previous one. The chapter “On the heart-shovel” exemplifies this point in many ways. Here a shovel the protagonist uses in his labor, and has come to have some affection for, is treated in the lyrically meditative style that permeates the novel.

There are many shovels, but the heart-shovel is my favorite. It’s the only one I named. The heart-shovel can’t do anything except load or unload coal, and only loose coal at that […] It’s shaped like a heart, with a large scoop deep enough for five kilos of coal or the hunger angel’s entire backside […] The heart-shovel has to be broken in, until the blade is completely shiny, until the weld on its neck feels like a scar on your hand and the shovel becomes an extension of your arm. (72-73)

Several other chapters have similar Montaigne-like titles (e.g., “On the hunger angel”; “On boredom”; “On camp happiness”), making such chapters essayistic disquisitions on these subjects as much as they are the next movement in the overarching narrative.

These quasi-essayistic chapters, as well as the regular recurrence of certain terms or phrases, cause The Hunger Angel to feel somewhat repetitive, verging at times on the imitative fallacy in its attempt to depict the monotony of life in a labor camp—but I choose the word “verging” judiciously here. The theme of hunger, largely embodied in the figure of the metaphorical hunger angel (a term that appears several dozen times), serves as a constant haunting fact of these characters’ existence. The same is true of the daily objects and activities in the captives’ lives, as well as the tools and materials they are forced to labor with as they rebuild Soviet structures recently demolished by the Nazis. Cement and slag and run-down trucks, shovels and bug-ridden beds and makeshift shoes, descriptions of the bread rations and the ways of cobbling together a meal—all of these objects and themes are depicted over and over, in only slightly varying language. Ultimately, these repetitions offer admirable accuracy in the depiction of life in the camps and create a lyric palimpsest where suffering and monotony overlay each other again and again.

The language is also largely affectless, with simple declarative sentences and only occasional forays into the consciousness of our narrator. It is somehow lyric and minimalist at once. As Chekhov teaches us, the more brutal the subject matter, the more affectless the tone of its literary depiction should be. Chekhov meant this as an injunction against histrionic prose, but in depictions of trauma, it is also psychologically accurate. Victims of long-term suffering often exhibit a bleached emotional palette, and Müller’s prose conveys this overwhelmed psychological state.

Beyond concerns of style and structure, The Hunger Angel should interest readers with its ethical and historical content. Here we are faced with a narrative explication of what Primo Levi called the gray zone—which is, briefly stated, the idea that victims are in part perpetrators and perpetrators are in part victims; there is no absolute good and evil in our universe, despite what many theologians and Hollywood films might have us believe; we live and act in a moral gray zone, not in a black-and-white world. The narrative opens at the end of the Second World War and the beginning of Soviet dominance in Eastern and Southeastern Europe, thus placing the novel at the borderlands between two of the greatest systemic mass murders in human history. As Müller writes in her afterword:

By the summer of 1944 the Red Army has advanced deep inside Romania: the Fascist dictatorship was overthrown, and its leader, Ion Antonescu, was arrested and later executed. Romania surrendered and in a surprise move declared war on its former ally, Nazi Germany. In January 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. All [German] men and women between seventeen and forty-five years of age were deported to forced-labor camps in the Soviet Union. (287)

And this is the novel’s point of departure. We therefore see the German population in a country formerly allied with the Nazis sent into labor camps. From the outset, the lines between victim and perpetrator, good guy and bad guy, are blurry at best. Then, as we see the desperate and often unpleasant things these men and women do to survive in the camps, those previously blurry lines practically disappear altogether.

Setting aside issues of content, style, and structure, it would be remiss not to discuss the quality of the translation itself—the means by which the content, style, and structure have been made available for the English-speaking world. I could offer a handful of quibbles over this or that choice Boehm made, but I won’t for several reasons. Firstly, there is no such thing as a perfect translation, and we translators, despite knowing this, are too prone to engaging in the tiresome sport of finding every minor error or area where something might have been rendered in a slightly fuller way. Secondly, The Hunger Angel presents peculiar challenges for which there is no ideal solution. Beginning already with the title, we see such a problem. The original German title is Atemschaukel, a neologism that means, literally, “breath-swing.” German is famously capable of creating new compound words with ease, but Müller stretches the inherent flexibility of the language well beyond its usual limits, creating an aesthetic idiom unique to her book. Boehm has attempted to recreate this technique in English by eliding spaces between words to build similar concept-bundles—e.g., “onedroptoomuchhappiness” and “underoverdaynightsummerandwintershirt.” At the risk of sounding facile, I think that the hashtag-speak of the internet has aided Boehm in his difficult task because most English speakers are now accustomed to reading such smashed-together language and see nothing odd about such constructions, or at least much less so than they might have even a short decade ago.

Müller’s novel offers rich possibilities for scholars in the fields of German studies, Eastern European studies, and trauma studies. It also has much to suggest it to a general reading audience—highly readable prose and striking subject matter, to name but two of the book’s appealing attributes. Given these factors and Müller’s status as a Nobel Laureate, I predict The Hunger Angel will continue to garner more of the attention it has already enjoyed and fully deserves.