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The Hunger Angel    by Herta Müller & Philip Boehm order for
Hunger Angel
by Herta Müller
Order:  USA  Can
Metropolitan, 2012 (2012)
Hardcover, e-Book

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* * *   Reviewed by Rheta Van Winkle

When seventeen-year-old Leo Auberg is deported from Romania to a work camp in the Soviet Union in January, 1945, he thinks he's going on an adventure. His parents and grandparents are upset and send warm clothes, food, and other gifts with him that he accepts with all of the inner criticism of a young teen. On the train there is a budding camaraderie among his warmly dressed, well-fed fellow conscripts, who have brought so much food with them that they use as firewood the skinny goat carcasses that are thrown into their car for them to cook - and laugh about it. They are all in for a rude awakening when they arrive at the work camp.

The other workers become as close as family to the young Leo. He describes the various jobs they all struggle to perform, but the worst deprivation they endure is a lack of enough food. They are given just enough food to survive, but the cabbage soup they eat for breakfast and dinner contains little cabbage. It's mostly just a watery broth. Their bread is carefully weighed out each morning according to the jobs they do. Harder physical labor earns you more bread, but it's never enough to satisfy hunger. Many times they will try to save some of the bread for later in the day or evening, since looking forward to food helps them endure the constant hunger. One terrible scene involves a man who has stayed in their bunkhouse during the day because he was sick, and who eats everyone else's saved bread. He is viciously beaten when the others discover their losses, but all of them consider this to be fair, including the man who stole the bread.

Several people die during Leo's internment. While everyone is saddened by the traumatic deaths, there is a general feeling that they are better off, since they aren't hungry and suffering any more. Leo is horrified by one of these deaths, though, when he hadn't been at the camp all that long. One of the women accidentally falls into the mortar pit, and no one even attempts to rescue her. She does beg for help, but it may not be possible as anyone jumping in and trying to save her would themselves drown in the muck. Leo wonders about his own will to live, which he believes comes from his grandmother's assertion that he will return home.

The Hunger Angel has been translated from German, but the style of writing even in translation comes across as powerful and poetic. The characters, from young Leo to those he lives and works with, are people we come to care about, and Leo speaks of even some of the worst of them with a sympathy born of his feelings as an outsider. Herta Müller, the author, has won many prestigious awards, as well as the 2009 Nobel Prize in Literature. I think anyone reading this powerful tribute to survival will find the experience rewarding and unforgettable.

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