The Intersection of History and Literature

Our history is marked by several events that have shaped the landscape of our world. They have also altered the way we see the world and how we perceive each other. Among the most recent and seminal historical events that shaped the world as it now includes two world wars, a slew of pandemics, the Great Depression, and the Industrial Revolution. While some had adverse impacts, each historical event has had its hand in molding our world. Their impact transcended time and they remain an integral part of today’s discourses all across the world. Meanwhile, there are historical events that are rarely heard of but through works of literature, the rest of the world gets to read about them. Dominican writers, for instance, gave a fuller picture of the impact of General Trujillo’s dictatorship on the country and its denizens. Filipino writers, on the other hand, wrote about the dark years following Ferdinand Marcos’ declaration of Martial Law.

History is also deeply rooted in the oeuvre of Nobel Laureate in Literature Herta Müller. A vocal critic of the Nicolae Ceaușescu regime in her native Romania, Müller found herself the subject of the government’s oppression, with the Romanian secret police watching her every move. Her works were censored as they were heavily critical of the regime. However, no amount of silencing or censorship can stop her works from making their impact. In 1984, her first book, Niederungen (Nadirs), was smuggled out to Germany, making her gain a sizeable following; Müller was part of Romania’s German-Swabian minority. In 1987, she was finally able to permanently move to Germany where she is still currently residing. Her succeeding works extensively chronicled this dark phase of her home nation’s contemporary history.

In a way, Müller’s 2009 novel, Atemschaukel, was a deviation from her other works. Published in the same year she won literature’s most prestigious prize and translated into English in 2012 with the title The Hunger Angel, the novel charted the story of  Leopold Auberg, a Romanian. However, like the author, Leo, as he was referred to, was descended from Romania’s German minority. The story commenced in January 1945 when, as a seventeen-year-old, Leo and other members of the German-speaking minority were rounded up, packed into livestock wagons, and shipped to a Soviet forced labor concentration camp. They were neither prisoners of war nor were they criminals. However, they were men and women who had the misfortune of being part of a list: “In their dismay at my being shipped off in the dead of winter to who knows where in Russia, everyone wanted to give me something that might be of use, even if it couldn’t help. Because nothing in the world could possibly help: I was on the Russians’ list, and that was that.”

“The hunger angel approached everyone, without restraint. He knew that where things can be unloaded, other things can be loaded. In terms of mathematics, the results could be horrifyin; if each person has his own hunger angel, then every time someone dies, a hunger angel is released. Eventuallly there would be nothing but abandoned hunger angels, abandoned heart-shovels, abandoned coal.”

~ Herta Müller, The Hunger Angel

After two weeks of enduring unlivable conditions in wagons and crowded trains – food and facilities were limited – Leo and his fellows reached the concentration camp. It was at this concentration camp or a gulag in Nowo-Gorlowka (Novogorlovka, Ukraine, now incorporated in Gorlovka) that Leo spent the next five years of his life. Like most of his fellows, Leo had no iota on what to expect or what adventures, if it can be called such, await them in the gulag. However, a general sense of submission to their fate permeated the atmosphere. Right off the bat, they were given shovels and their task: shovel coals. On top of shoveling coals, they also had to haul mortars and clean slags. What ensued was a story of a young man’s indomitable spirit in order to overcome the oppression that surrounded him.

In a sense, the story of Leo was the story of a survivor during a dark phase of contemporary history. Through his story and experiences, readers across the world were provided glimpses into the plight of the Romanian Germans during the Stalinist regime; Romania was occupied by Soviet troops in 1944 and was a satellite of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.) in 1948. As an act of retribution for the actions of Herr Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and his regime instituted a detailed plan that deported Germans living in parts of Eastern Europe occupied by the Soviet Union and forced them into labor in concentration camps called gulags. About 60,000 to 75,000 of Romania’s German minority were deported into gulags, 3,000 of whom could not make it through their release dates.

The overwhelming stench of death and hopelessness permeated the camp. One of the primary reasons some were not able to survive the gulags was the starvation that the laborers had to endure. They had to force their bodies beyond their limits in order to earn paltry food to last them throughout a day of hard labor at the camp. Before heading out for their assigned tasks, the laborers were handed a morsel of bread, the quantity of which depends on the nature of the work they do. For Leo and his fellow shovelers, one shovel load equates to one gram of bread. At the end of the day, they were given a weak and watery cabbage soup. It was not enough to sustain them but they had to endure it in order to survive. They had other options to quench their hunger. Occasionally, they gathered edible weeds from the roadside or the wilderness. Some also begged in the adjacent Russian village but it was also crippled by destitution.

There were also those who bartered favors incognito. For instance, Leo was able to obtain potatoes in exchange for a handkerchief. Stealing, meanwhile, elicited harsh punishment. It was their hunger that drives them to work harder. The atrocities have forced them to pare themselves down. In times of desperation, they had to forego what little dignity they had in store. Amplifying the pervasiveness of this hunger was the imaginary hunger angel of the book’s English title; the German title translates to Breathing Swing. While the Hunger Angel was perceived as the camp’s general evil, it was also the primary motivation that kept Leo and the laborers alive. They strive to satisfy that hunger. It was ubiquitous and was part and parcel of Leo’s story. Ironically, the story was subtly permeated with the smell of food.

“I myself could do without the heart-shovel. But my hunger depends on it. I wish the heart-shovel were my tool. But th eshovle is the master, and I am the tool. I submit to its rule. Neverthelessm it’s my favorite shovel. I’ve forced myself to like it. I submit because it is a better master when I am compliant, when I don’t hate it. I ought to thank it, because when I shovel for my bread I am distracted from my hunger. Since hunger never goes away, the heart-shovel makes sure that shoveling gets put ahead of hunger. Shoveling takes priority when you are shoveling, otherwhise your body can’t manage the work.”

~ Herta Müller, The Hunger Angel

Beyond the debilitating hunger that pervaded the camp, Müller vividly captured other aspects of life in the camp. Several of the guards were brutal and had no scruples with their actions. Those who were entrusted with the oversight of the camp tended to turn a blind eye; some were also corrupt. The forced laborers, meanwhile, had to endure the harshness of the winter, striving to survive with their meager articles of clothing which did not ensure safety against the elements. Death was everywhere and Leo, who narrated the novel through his point-of-view, got to witness several of these deaths, such as two laborers who were crushed by two coal cars and another one who got buried alive in the cement tower. Medical care was not available. It was a bleak image and rays of hope barely penetrated this shroud of darkness that embraced the gulag.

The subject of the deported Romanian Germans, however, was taboo amongst the locals, particularly during the Nicolae Ceaușescu regime. The subject of forced deportation was discussed in hushed tones and, oftentimes, in private even after the forced laborers returned home. There was no reprieve for them as they were never able to fully resume their normal lives. In the novel’s Afterwords, Müller mentioned that it was “a taboo subject because they recalled Romania’s Fascist past.” Those who survived were forced into silence. As Müller further explained: “My childhood was accompanied by such stealthy conversations; at the time I didn’t understand their content, but I did sense the fear.” But the victims cannot be silenced forever for details of the atrocities will eventually find their way out.

Over half a decade after the deportations, Müller got into contact with one of these deportees, a Romanian-born German poet named Oskar Pastior. Pastior was also from the same village where Müller grew up in. Through their conversations, Pastior shared this dark part of his life. Müller, on the other hand, took notes. Through him, Müller learned about the oppressive conditions in the camps; Müller’s mother was also one of the deported Germans. Their conversations eventually turned into a desire of writing a joint novel. The dream, however, was cut short by Pastior’s demise in 2006. Müller, nevertheless, pushed through with the novel and the result was Atemschaukel. The novel’s main character was inspired by Pastior and it was Pastior’s memories that formed the backbone of the novel.

While life at the camp was the novel’s focal theme, the novel was deeply personal as well. In place of a robust plot, the novel was built brick-by-brick with Leo’s extensive ruminations on life, hunger, and mortality. Other characters come in and out of his life in the camp but they fleeted, remaining at the fringes of Leo’s mind. He was preoccupied with scenarios and encounters with his family. On top of the hunger angel, it was his imagination that kept Leo sane amidst the oppressive atmosphere of the camp. By providing glimpses into Leo’s psychological landscape, the novel explored sexuality. Leo was homosexual and he initially viewed his deportation as a form of escape from the confinement of his family. Unfortunately, it was not the form of escape he was yearning for.

“The camp is a practical place. You can’t afford to feel shame or horror. You proceed with steady indifference, or perhaps dejected contentment. And this has nothing to do with schadenfreude. I believe that the less skittish we are around the dead, the more we cling to life. And the more we fall prey to illusions you convince yourself that the missing people simply have moved to another camp. Id doesn’t matter what you know, you believe the opposite.”

~ Herta Müller, The Hunger Angel

The subject of forced labor camps has been explored in literature through the works of another Nobel Laureate in Literature. A vocal critic of communism, Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the awardee of the 1970 Nobel Prize in Literature, extensively explored this subject. His works, such as One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, shed a light on this instrument of political repression in the USSR. The system was eventually abolished following Stalin’s death in 1960 but it has left a bitter aftertaste among those who survived the system. Solzhenitsyn’s novels, however, examined the system through the lenses of the Russians. It was this aspect that Müller’s novel sets it apart from the others. While adding to the growing literature on the gulags, she explored it from another point of view.

Müller, who was recognized by the Swedish Committee for her “concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed”, vividly captured these images with her powerful writing. Leo’s story was rife with objects, from a gramophone box that served as a pigskin suitcase he carried with him when he got deported to images of shovels and coal that were representative of the atrocities permeating the atmosphere at the camp to small rays of hope that came in the form of handkerchief and a heart-shovel. They were vividly captured along with the suffocating presence of death and hopelessness.

With the bleak atmosphere that was wrapped around it, The Hunger Angel was certainly no easy read. It grappled with a subject that was once taboo in its country of origin while exploring themes about humanity, sexuality, and mortality. The novel found premium in its exploration of a subject that was rarely examined through a different lens because of the circumstances surrounding it. The Hunger Angel, while bleak and bereft of vestiges of hope, was a remarkable and necessary tale. At the same time, The Hunger Angel was a testament to Müller’s writing elan and her capabilities as a storyteller and chronicler of both personal and human history.

“I taught my homesickness to be dry-eyed a long time ago. Now I’d like it to become onerless. Then it would no longer see y condition here and wouldn’t ask about my family back home. Then my mind would no longer be home to people, only objects. Then I could simply shove them back and forth across the place where it hurts, the way we shove our feet when we bdane the Paloma. Objects may be small or large, and some maybe too heavy, but they are finite.”

~ Herta Müller, The Hunger Angel
Rating

77%

Characters (30%) – 23%
Plot (30%) – 
22%
Writing (25%) – 
19%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
13%

Recently, the 2022 Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to French writer Annie Ernaux, making her just the 17th female writer – as compared to 112 male writers – to win the most prestigious literary prize. Speaking of the Nobel Prize, it was just in the past five years that I have been focusing on the works of Nobel laureates, leading me to names I never thought I would ever encounter. Among them was Herta Müller, a Romanian writer of German descent and the winner of the 2009 Nobel. I was lucky when I was able to obtain one of her works, The Hunger Angel early in 2020, which I made part of my foray into the works of female writers last March 2022, International Women’s Month. The novel painted the portrait of a dark phase of history, as I have learned her works are. Yes, I have read about the Russian gulags through another Nobel laureate in literature, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and his novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Both novels captured the oppressive atmosphere and the hopelessness that pervaded the gulags. Sure, Müller’s novel was bleak and rays of sunlight are few and far in between, but it nevertheless is a seminal literary work for it paints a part of history rarely discussed.

Book Specs

Author: Herta Müller
Translator (from German): Philip Boehm
Publisher: Picador
Publishing Date: May 2013
Number of Pages: 285
Genre: Historical

Synopsis

It was an icy morning in January 1945 when the patrol came for seventeen-year-old Leo Auberg to deport him to a camp in the Soviet Union. Leo would spend the next five years in a coke-processing plant, shoveling coal, lugging bricks, mixing mortar, and battling the relentless calculus of hunger that governed the labor colony: one shovel load of coal is worth one gram of bread.

Conjuring the distorted world of the labor camp in all its physical and moral absurdity, Nobel laureate Herta Müller has given Leo the language to express the inexpressible, as hunger sharpens his senses into an acuity that is both hallucinatory and profound. Hunger becomes an insatiable angel who haunts the camp, but also a bare-knuckled sparring partner, delivering blows that keep Leo feeling the rawest connection to life. Müller has distilled Leo’s struggle into words of breathtaking intensity that take us on a journey far beyond the Gulag and into the depths of one man’s soul.

About the Author

Herta Müller (also spelled Mueller) was born on August 17, 1953, in Nițchidorf, outside Timisoara. She was part of Romania’s German-Swabian minority. She graduated from Nikolaus Lenau High School before pursuing a degree in German studies and Romanian literature at the University of Timișoara. At the university, Müller became involved with Aktionsgruppe Banat, a group of writers fighting for freedom of speech during the Ceauşescu dictatorship and the official literature of the ruling socialist party.

Post-university, she worked as a translator at a machine factory in Timişoara from 1977 to 1979. However, she was fired after she refused to cooperate with the Securitate, the Romanian secret police. Following her dismissal, she worked as a kindergarten teacher and a private German tutor. It was also during this period that she started writing. In 1982, her first book, Niederungen (Nadirs), a collection of stories, was published but was censored by the Romanian government. She nevertheless gained a sizeable following after a complete version of the book was smuggled out to Germany in 1984. In the same year, she published her second book, Drückender Tango, another collection of short prose. She was an outspoken critic of the Romanian government. Her activism made her the subject of the government’s censorship; she was forbidden to publish again in Romania. She was also issued death threats.

In 1987, she emigrated with her husband that time, fellow writer Richard Wagner, and moved to Germany where she is also currently residing. However, despite moving to a different country, she was persecuted and threatened by the Securitate. A year before she migrated, her first novel, Der Mensch ist ein grosser Fasan auf der Welt (The Passport), was published in Germany. She followed it up with Reisende auf einem Bein (Traveling on One Leg, 1989), Der Fuchs war damals schon der Jäger (The Fox Was Ever the Hunter, 1992), Herztier (The Land of Green Plums, 1994), Heute wär ich mir lieber nicht begegnet (The Appointment, 1997), and Atemschaukel (The Hunger Angel, 2009). She has also published collections of poetry and essays. Among her collections of essays are Hunger und Seide (Hunger and Silk 1995), Der König verneigt sich und tötet (The King Bows and Kills, 2003), and Immer derselbe Schnee und immer derselbe Onkel (Always the Same Snow and Always the Same Uncle, 2011).  

Over the course of her career, Müller received a score of awards for her works. Among them are the 1990 Roswitha Medal of Knowledge of Bad Gandersheim, the oldest German language literary prize for women; the 1991 Kranichsteiner Literature Prize; the 1995 Aristeion Prize; the 1998 Ida-Dehmel Literature Prize and the International Dublin Literary Award for The Land of Green Plums; the 2014 Hannelore Greve Literature Prize; and 2021 Pour le Mérite for Sciences and Arts. She was also awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Literature.