Review: 'The Hunger Angel'

Poet and novelist Herta Muller won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2009 — the year her German-language novel was first published. Now it's been published in English as The Hunger Angel.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

In 2009, Romanian novelist Herta Muller won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The Nobel Academy cited her poetry and prose for its vivid and frank depiction of the landscape of the dispossessed. Her novel called "The Hunger Angel," is now available in an English translation from Philip Boehm.

And Alan Cheuse has our review.

ALAN CHEUSE: Young and gay Leo Auberg, Romanian-born of German descent, and 17 years old when the Nazis go down to defeat, finds himself arrested by the occupying Soviets. He's shoved into a railcar, along with dozens of other German-born Romanians, and shipped to Russia to work as an indentured laborer in the coal processing industry.

From January of 1945 until the beginning of 1950, Leo finds himself working from before sunrise to after dark shoveling coal, hauling concrete, lugging bricks consistently overworked and underfed so that what he imagines to be an actual figure, the Hunger Angel of the title, constantly lurks about, looking for an opportunity to seize him and pull him over into the darkness of death. Leo writes: No words are adequate for the suffering caused by hunger.

But Herta Muller knows how to deploy a large range of figurative language, the language of simile and metaphor, in order to make Leo's condition known to us. Memories of past meals haunt him day and night as the novel builds in episodic fashion rather than by means of a well-made plot.

Though striking characters do abound in its pages - from the ruthless, always screaming Russian camp commandant, to the kapo who issues commands but doesn't work himself, to the corps of victimized laborers, all of whom hope to endure the tortures of hunger, cold, harsh labor, and ferocious boredom. Leo endures, surviving to tell this story some 50 years later, and still mindful of every bite of food he takes. Blind hunger sees food best, he declares. Herta Muller shows us this horrifying story with eyes open wide.

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BLOCK: The book is "The Hunger Angel" by Herta Muller. Alan Cheuse teaches writing at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

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