Although its afterglow has saturated the culture industry for almost sixty years, World War II still has far too many secrets. Each year there are about 3 billion hours spent playing Call of Duty titles online. The rise of Hitler and the Nazis is widely taught at both GCSE and A Level. In 2008, Tom Cruise staked his career on audiences believing that he actually tried to kill Hitler; Valkyrie became the ‘Tom Cruise eye-patch movie’. But it takes until now for The Hunger Angel, a novel about what was suffered by the Banat Swabians of Romania. And although its author, Herta Muller, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2009, I doubt this harrowing account will reach a particularly enthused public.
In 1945, Russia placed all working-age Romanian Germans in labour camps to assist with rebuilding the war-crippled country. Muller’s mother was enlisted. For years afterwards, the deportations became a taboo subject because, as Muller writes, ‘they recalled Romania’s fascist past’. The poet Oskar Pastior also spent time in a Soviet camp, and before his death in 2006, The Hunger Angel was planned as a collaboration. What we’re left with, this bleak, fragmented piece of poetic prose, is perhaps only one more instance of horror in a long trail marked by loss and broken parts.
Our narrator is Leo, a 17-year-old whose ‘strange, filthy, shameless and beautiful’ encounters with other men would be enough to get him sent down as it is; but such scandals stay hidden, and it’s Leo’s ethnicity which catches up to him in the end. In the camp he must shift cement and slag with his heart-shaped shovel, working on a tiny portion of food each day. This becomes the entirety of his life. The metronome of the shovel overtakes Leo’s heart as the book’s underlying rhythm. Short fragments replace any semblance of narrative drive, I simply wait for the next section to begin: ‘Cinder blocks’, ‘On strict people’, ‘On slag’. Leo’s memories of home and family disappear through the years; there are no abiding guarantors of hope, no fantasies of happy return, only constant hunger and the echo of his grandmother’s parting words: ‘I know you’ll come back’. This phrase tightens like a bad suture, and before long it has become more oppressive than the camp itself.
The loss of identity and interest portrayed here is remarkable. Memorable depictions of campmates and Russian guards there are not. Agency, if that’s what I’m thinking of, is given to the landscape, or the building materials: ‘Take care with the cement. Be sparing with the cement. Don’t let the cement fly away. Don’t let the cement get wet. But the cement scatters on its own, it squanders itself, it could not be more miserly toward us. We live the way the cement wants us to. Cement is the thief, he has robbed us, not the other way around. Not only that: the cement makes you spiteful. It sows mistrust when it scatters itself, cement is a schemer.’ This section, entitled ‘Cement’, is unforgettable. I’d describe its tone as despairing, but Muller’s prose does not allow for such sensationalism. Instead there are pages and pages of emptiness which sometimes verges on beauty, but mostly remains deadweight.
It’s clear that the conjunction of history and aesthetic standards is fraught with problems. The expectations we might have of a novel – narrative tension, characterization, distinctive voice, deft plotting, etc. – are troubled when the subject matter itself overwhelms fiction as a category. The Hunger Angel is not an easy or enjoyable book to read, but it is an important piece of work nonetheless.
Any Cop? The bleakest book I’ve ever read. It is worth persisting with for the slightly hallucinatory feeling that arises after about a hundred pages.