Book Review: The Hunger Angel by Herta Müller

Title: The Hunger Angel
Author: Herta Müller
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.
ISBN: 978-0-8050-9301-8
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 290
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

Herta Müller writes about a time and place that has long been gone; however it could still come back with roaring vengeance. She should not be read because she is a Nobel Laureate. She should be read because she knows her skill – her hunted and most gutted style of tearing of human emotions and exposing them for what they are – raw and without feeling.

I remember the first time when I read, “The Appointment”. I was taken in by that book to a large extent. The Appointment is set in the totalitarian era and mostly reminded me of “We” by Yevgeny Zamyatin. Herta Müller’s books are bleak and speak of what is real – oppression and the slow death of human dreams and hopes. So if the reader is willing to digest this, then reading her is a feast that you will not forget.

“The Hunger Angel” is about a seventeen-year old boy, his life and times in a camp in Soviet Union, starting on an icy morning in January 1945, when the patrol comes for him. Leo Auberg spends the next five years in conditions unimaginable. He spends the years shoveling coal, lugging bricks, mixing mortar and battling the pangs of hunger that governs the labour camp, which is 1 shovel load = 1 gram of bread.

The book is a close look at the labour camp. You feel as though Ms. Müller has led this life that she can write with such precision about it. The Hunger Angel is all about description. The scenes are poetic, smooth and real. The battle is always on between Leo and his Hunger and that is at the core of the book. The blows that hunger lashes at Leo and he in the face of an adversary like none other.

Only after reading this book, did I think to myself: What if my hunger was dependent on a shovel and the amount of coal, sand and cement? Would I be able to survive? In all probability, the answer is no. I don’t think we could have and that is at the core of this book.

Leo’s character is poetic. He hallucinates (that is where he dreams about his hunger angel). He strives. He learns to desensitize himself, which is again only a consequence of his conditions and emerges a different person. Ms. Müller does not paint a pretty picture, and rightly so – considering the scenario is not pretty at all.

The translation by Philip Boehm seems flawless as everything is conjured perfectly (not that I would know considering I have not read the book in Romanian). However, the reader can gauge given the detailing required for this kind of a book. The writing as I mentioned is ruthless and brutal. Herta Müller writes with urgency that I have not seen in any other writer. I recommend this book to people who can stomach reality and comprehend it. For me, it was an eye-opening read.

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