“The Hunger Angel”
I KNOW YOU’LL COME BACK. I didn’t set out to remember her sentence. I carried it to the camp without thinking. I had no idea it was going with me. But a sentence like that has a will of its own. It worked inside me, more than all the books I had packed. I KNOW YOU’LL COME BACK became the heart shovel’s accomplice and the hunger angel’s adversary. And because I did come back, I can say: a sentence like that keeps you alive.
The Hunger Angel by Herta Muller was originally published in Germany in 2009 and translated into English in 2012. Winner of the Nobel Prize, The Hunger Angel is the story of Leopold (“Leo”) Auberg, an ethnic German teenager living in Romania with his family in 1945 when the Red Army overthrows the Fascist government and demands that all Germans between the ages of 17 – 45 be deported to forced labor camps to rebuild the war-damaged Soviet Union. Leo is picked up by the Soviets and deported to a work camp in the Ukraine where he lives through five years of hard labor shoveling coal, carrying bricks, mixing cement, and desperately trying to alleviate his hunger while wasting away.
For every shovel of coal a worker is able to load onto a truck, a gram of bread is earned at the labor camp. To put that in perspective, consider there are 28 grams in an ounce and that an emaciated starving worker may be able to dig a shovel deep into a pile of coal, load, lift and dump the contents every 30 seconds which means he would earn 2 grams of bread a minute, or an ounce every 14 minutes or 4 ounces an hour, if maintained over the 6 – 8 hour shift. The harder he works, the more bread he earns but the sad irony is that he also burns more calories. During a shift, a worker generally burns at least 300-400 calories an hour.
Bread has approximately 75 calories an ounce which means the person with the shovel is burning more calories than he is taking in. In the work camps, most workers earn 600-800 grams of bread per day which along with a bowl of cabbage soup (that doesn’t typically contain any whole pieces of cabbage), is all that sustains them day after day, year after year. Not surprisingly, they become walking skeletons driven to earn grams of bread which cruelly requires the expenditure of energy and calories. Some become sick, others die, and still others like Leo survive by a mixture of luck, shrewdness, and creating a world within their head:
Everything matched the magnitude of my hunger in length, width, height, and color. Between the sky overhead and the dust of the earth, every place smelled of a different food. The main street of the camp smelled like caramel, the entrance to he camp like freshly baked bread, crossing the street of the factory smelled like warm apricots, the wooden fence of the factory like candied nuts, the factory gate like scrambled eggs, the yama like stewed peppers, the slag heaps like tomato soup, the cooling tower like roasted eggplant, the labyrinth of steaming pipes like strudel with vanilla sauce. The lumps of tar in the weeds smelled like quince compote and the coke ovens like cantaloupe. It was magic and it was agony. Even the wind fed the hunger, spinning food we could literally see.
Hunger consumes Leo and he “finds both sorrow and comfort in what he calls the hunger angel, a force that both punishes, guides, and keeps him alive.” The hunger angel seems to grow day by day and yet he tells Leo to use his spit to make the soup last longer , to go to bed early to make the hunger shorter, and to always think about the evening because daily rations of bread are distributed in the morning and each worker must choose to eat the bread right away or to save a piece for the evening.
Sixty years after Leo is released from the work camp, he can still instantly recall the anguish and desperation of hunger but has a hard time verbalizing these feelings because “no words are adequate for the suffering caused by hunger.” Hunger is something we all experience from time to time but living with chronic hunger or starvation is an entirely different experience that most of us will never know. Add bed bugs, lice, disease, and abuse and the human suffering is unimaginable to most.
One of the most moving parts of the book is a chapter entitled “10 rubles” which is the story of Leo going to the local market hoping to trade a pair of gaiters for food when he finds a 10 ruble note on the ground and decides to use the money to buy food. A triumph and heartbreaking story that will leave the reader unable to think about milk, pancakes, and raspberry water in the same way ever again. In anther chapter, Leo is rewarded for a kind act by being allowed to walk to a potato field to pick potatoes with a group of women laborers overseen by a sadistic guard. After reading this chapter, potato fields and determination take on a whole new meaning to the reader.
The Hunger Angel is a powerful book that offers a different perspective of persecution during and after the second World War. Based on the stories told by the author’s mother, who was sent to a forced labor camp for five years and on the stories of the poet, Oskar Pastior (who passed away in 2006), Herta Muller tells the story of thousands who suffered at the hands of the Red Army and how those years never left their conscious.
What can be said about chronic hunger. Perhaps that there’s a hunger that can make you sick with hunger. That it comes in addition to the hunger you already feel. That there is a hunger which is always new, which grows insatiably, which pounces on the never-ending old hunger that already took such effort to tame.