In a Stalinist labour camp, the hunger angel is not a guardian of souls, but a demon that drives the starving mad. He sits on the heart-shaped shovel and measures out the lives of the digging prisoners, each load of coal equaling one gram of bread. Before people die, hunger fur grows in the hollows of their cheeks; the ghost of a hare appears in their faces.
At the end of World War II, Leo Auberg is deported to a gulag only because he is a Romanian-born German. He survives through his love of words and his hunger-fuelled, hallucinatory consumption of life. Everyone at the camp has hunger words: words that they feed on, names of foods, and memories—their escape words.
The lyricism and inventiveness of Herta Muller’s writing make this heartbreaking book palatable. It is divided into anecdotal chapters, like small bites, which makes the story easier to digest. The details, which could only be witnessed by someone in a gulag, are astonishing: a cap taken off during a roll call freezes to the ground and has to be pried off; bread is traded by the desperate prisoners because as it dries its appearance shifts, making some pieces appear bigger than others; the gob of shaving foam blown off a barber’s hand by a sigh lands between his galoshes, which are tied at the ankles with copper wire.
Herta Muller, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2009, based her novel on the experiences of her mother and of a poet friend, Oskar Pastior. The gulags were a taboo subject in Romania until the fall of communism.
- Kasia Jaronczyk