The Haunting of ‘The Hunger Angel’

Note: Before I started reviewing on my own blog, I reviewed books on Examiner.com. Now that it is ceasing to publish, I am moving my reviews to this site.

Nobel laureate, Herta Müller, has written a stunning, haunting novel about suffering and survival in the Soviet work camps following World War II. In The Hunger Angel, Müller presents us with Leo Auberg, a young, closeted gay man in German controlled Europe. One day, late in the war, he is picked up suddenly and shipped off to a labor camp in Russia where he suffers with fellow inmates through cold, harsh working conditions and, most acutely, hunger.

In spare prose, Müller dramatizes the constant struggle that Leo and the others face when they are tempted and taunted by their individual hunger angel. The angels, however, are closer to demons, and they are alternately real and imagined. In any case, they are constant reminders of the deprivation that these men and women suffer as they perform hard labor in the cruel Siberian landscape.

Though Leo is the main focus, we meet many others in the camp. There are guards who are comfortable and prisoners whose special talents–such as being a barber–provide them with special privileges. There is even a developmentally handicapped young woman who wanders around the camp. In most cases, we don’t know why each person was picked up by patrols and sent away, but Leo’s interactions with them help us see that individual “crimes” don’t matter; all suffer the same way.

As the war ends, there is hope among the inmates that they will get to return home. With this hope, though, comes the dread of realizing how permanently scarred they have been by the camp. Though Leo returns home, he never finds his place among his family and friends again. Though he eventually escapes hunger, he never escapes his hunger angel.

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