The Hunger Angel

Written by Herta Müller Philip Boehm (trans.)
Review by Bruce Macbain

The fact that this book’s German title, Atemschaukel, translates as something like “Breath Swing,” while the British edition is titled Everything I Possess I Carry With Me, and the American edition is called The Hunger Angel, says something about the elusiveness of this grim, hallucinatory, plotless, and introspective novel. Much of it reads like the ravings of a lunatic, which is certainly intentional because the protagonist, a German youth imprisoned in a Soviet labor camp in the 1940s, is driven mad by hunger.

The “hunger angel” of the title is a kind of ghostly presence — the personification of starvation — that, waking or sleeping, haunts the narrator and all of his maimed and broken fellow prisoners. (It is based on the reminiscences of a number of survivors, including the author’s mother.) A brief quotation will give the flavor: “And the hunger angel flies as well. He is in the coal, in the heart-shovel, in your joints. He knows that nothing warms the whole body more than the very shoveling that that wears it down…We weren’t sure whether there was one hunger angel for all of us or each one had his own…”

If this is your cup of tea, there are 290 pages of it. Needless to say, it helped earn Müller the Nobel Prize for Literature. Let us hope, at least, that Steven Spielberg never makes a movie of it.