HERTA MÜLLER'S HUNGRY EYE

Found in Translation: the first English edition of a labour-camp novel impresses Simon Willis with its honesty and concision

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, November/December 2012

AUTHOR HERTA MÜLLER
ENGLISH TITLE THE HUNGER ANGEL
ORIGINAL TITLE ATEMSCHAUKEL (2009)
ORIGINAL LANGUAGE GERMAN
TRANSLATOR PHILIP BOEHM

This novel first appeared the year Herta Müller won the Nobel prize. The qualities which bagged her that gong—poetic concision and clear-eyed honesty—are here too, taking us inside the mind of Leopold Auberg, her narrator, an ethnic German from Romania transported in 1945 to a Soviet labour camp. It's a landscape of slag and gravel, digging and deprivation, always accompanied by the "hunger angel" of the title: "everything I did was hungry," Leopold says. "Everything matched the magnitude of my hunger in length, width, height and colour." 

The book is full of touches like that—sensations taking on substance and form, inert objects becoming animated and insidious. The wind can listen, and cement "flies and crawls and sticks". Although Leopold is one of many in the camp, we're always with a real individual and in a real place. Müller's great strength is concrete detail. At night the bed bugs cluster where Leopold's dribble soaks into the pillow. 

The toil is unremitting, but Müller gives us light as well as dark. Leopold sees beauty in the pink streaks in a slag heap and in carpet beaters glimpsed on a drive to a brick factory. Most of all he finds consolation in memories of the ordinariness of home: "sometimes things acquire a tenderness, a monstrous tenderness we don't expect from them". It's a line that could apply to Müller's prose, always exactingly grounded by the practicalities of survival—managing a bread ration, lugging cinder blocks, or making a tasteless weed palatable. This is privation transmuted into poetry.

Simon Willis is apps editor of Intelligent Life

The Hunger Angel Portobello, out now