The Hunger Angel by Herta Müller
An antidote to literary tiredness
"The operation of writing implies that of reading as its dialectical correlative and these two connected acts (writing and reading) necessitate two distinct agents," Jean Paul Sartre wrote in his famous essay Why Write?.
The writer needs the reader to bring the work to fruition: To make it come into view a concrete act called reading is necessary, and it lasts only as long as this act can last. Beyond that, there are only black marks on paper.
For Sartre, literary work exists only through the collaboration of writer and reader:
Creation can find its fulfillment only in reading, since the artist must entrust to another the job of carrying out what he has begun... what the writer requires of the reader is not the application of an abstract freedom but the gift of his whole person, with his passions, his prepossessions, his sympathies, his sexual temperament, and his scale of values... To write is thus both to disclose the world and to offer it as a task to the generosity of the reader... There is no question of merely re-presenting the world as it really is. In short, the world is my task, that is, the essential and freely accepted function of my freedom."
It is this "freedom" I believe our current book culture has inadvertently prohibited. Left out of the commercial establishment "literary" marketplace, the relationship between serious reader and writer has been reduced, often forfeited, and hit most devastatingly. The shift from a search for meaning and authenticity to consumer-based and consumer-friendly work has dealt serious literary fiction a blow, threatening neglect and negation, one could say, which excludes, at the same time, the serious reader. Though I am sure this is not new news, many agree that we have, in the past two decades, witnessed the movement towards consumerism, but what is news is that there are writers, global and regional, whose work, although not readily available in our market-driven bookstores, offer us an exit and a resurgence of good faith. Herta Müller is one such writer. And her latest book, "The Hunger Angel" renews this conversation.
Wikipedia describes consumerism “as economically manifested in the chronic purchasing of new goods and services, with little attention to their true need, durability, product origin or the environmental consequences of manufacture and disposal. Consumerism is driven by huge sums spent on advertising designed to create both a desire to follow trends, and the resultant personal self-reward system based on acquisition.” Great literature has always been peddled; commercial intentions from Shakespeare to Philip Roth do not in themselves negate works of literary seriousness.
Harold Bloom in his Anatomy of Influence has written:
"I define influence simply as literary love, tempered by defense... greatness ensues from giving inevitable expression to a fresh anxiety... literary criticism is in the first place literary, which is to say personal and passionate... Literature for me is not merely the best part of life: it is itself the form of life, which has no other form…the structure of literary influence is labyrinthine, not linear, an endless labyrinth of linkages that makes up the stuff of art... Forty years or more into my explication of influence I still had not clarified my idea of the poet-in-a poet... But I think I can manage it now galvanized in part by the New Criticism reduction of all literary relationships to base self-interest."
Other philosophers after Sartre have added more thoughts and concepts to the sense of anguish one must confront to write authentically. For Maurice Blanchot serious writing is "an essential solitude". He writes that authenticity "is born from doubt and insecurity". In T.S. Eliot’s The Four Quartets, Eliot writes about humility, that is: acknowledging our limits to understand all that in human experience which is mysterious, ineffable and ambiguous.
"A free person," Sartre explains, "must choose “anguish” (angst)... they know that they have to make a choice, and that that choice will have consequences." For authenticity to work, a sense of past and present must be there as Bloom has pointed out, "an anatomy of influence" and connectedness. And trend, focusing on the one generation of the moment can not lead us there. Similarly, not knowing who one's parents are, where they were born, or what trials their lives encountered would make it impossible to understand one's own self. One's heritage and inheritance form one's identity and if barred from any linkage to a past, one can only achieve a limited and greatly deprived sense of self, a self that is disconnected from its own history.
It can be said, too, that the decades created by American literary trend and American consumerism cannot achieve the linkage to the literature of the past because in fact there has, concomitantly, arisen a belligerence in American consumerism and mainstream "literary" fiction towards a past which includes literature connected by the movements in European modernism. An ethnocentric fence has been built to exclude work that isn't regional or national to us as Americans and can't be called "plot-driven" or "character driven" but relies on language, linguistic and philosophical meanings to tell its story.
In Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche identified the conflict between Appollonian literature – art which is mostly made and created with marble statues of heroes and prophets equivalent to our modern day celebrities, and rarely expressive of human anxiety or helplessness – vs. Dionysian literature, perceived by the Appollonians as dangerous, primitive, chaotic, the unleashing of unexplainable, primal and sensual expressions of the human condition which nonetheless create awareness and epiphany; sustain and nurture us both as readers and writers. The commercial consumerism feels like an extension of Appollonian art, denying and repressing the chaos and emotional discomfort of truth-telling which has historically provided us a path into our own selves. Books that express dark and troubled states, ending with ambiguity, not resolution, are not consumer-friendly.
The generational linkage both to people and literature exists powerfully in Müller’s work, it offers a connectedness not only to a historical past in Europe but to the literature of European modernism and all literature, a sense of authentic story-telling, from generation to generation, the imaginative miracle of serious writing. When Ceausescu took power in Romania in 1965, Herta Müller was twelve years old. Much earlier in January 1945, all Romania's ethnic Germans aged 17-45 were deported to forced labor camps in the Soviet gulag. Many did not survive and those who did spent five years in manual labor, shoveling coal, clearing slag, and lifting bricks. Müller joined a dissent group in the early 1970’s while studying Romanian and German literature at Timisoara. :“One warning was my father being 17 when he joined the SS," Müller tells us in an interview, "I thought I'm nearly his age, in a dictatorship, a different one. If I accommodate myself to it, I can't object to what he did. It was pretty clear-cut; I used a rear-view mirror."
The region where Müller was born, called Banat, was a German-speaking part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire split between Romania and Yugoslavia after the World War I. Her father, a field laborer and alcoholic, volunteered for Hitler's Waffen-SS. "It was terrible to find my father on the murderer's side," Müller said. "He was a simple man, and obstinate... When I spoke about the Nazis' crimes, he always said, 'Well, look at what the Russians did.' When he spat on his shoes to shine them, I'd say, 'Ah, that's what a Nazi does.' I didn't make life easy for him."
Her father was in the same tank division as Günter Grass. When Grass's adolescent membership to SS was exposed in 2006, Müller angrily criticized him for keeping silent about it. "If I charge my father with this, I must charge Grass, an intellectual, too" she says. "He took the moral high ground for decades. His silence was a lie." She finds it unjust that there were "only civilians in the labor camps. My father wasn't in the camp; it was my mother. He was still a prisoner of war in England. The soldiers weren't home yet, so they took civilians too young for war, and many women. If my father had been taken, it would have been understandable. They thought I might be abducted back to Romania." When the 1989 revolution came, destroying Ceausescu's regime, Müller tells us, "I thought: I'll live longer than him now. Yet after his summary trial and Christmas Day execution, I cried all that day, partly maybe with relief, but you can't watch somebody being shot. Even though I might have wished for that for 20 years, I didn't really want to see it."
Müller’s mother was forced to a Soviet labor camp for five years. Fifty years later, Müller spent many hours interviewing a Romanian victim, the homosexual poet Oskar Pastior whom she fictionalized into Leopold Aubach in "The Hunger Angel". To me, The Hunger Angel exemplifies the ways in which fiction, and it's writer, can imagine and conceptualize experiences not their own because their own personal anguish is a center for their confrontation with the material and it's angst.
Müller spent most of her writing career turning her life into poetic fiction. After she fled to West Berlin she met the German playwright Harry Merkle, now her husband. Death threats still pursued her, as well as false allegations that she was an informant for Ceausecu's secret police, the Securitate. In 2009 she described Ceausecu's in her Nobel Prize speech as a "thick-boned colossus" who called her a "shirker, a slut and … a stray bitch" In the same speech she described how she was fired from a job translating manuals at a tractor factory for refusing to be recruited by the Securitate. Müller's home was bugged by a regional Securitate chief who claimed she was psychotic and had been fired as a teacher for smoking in the classroom. Her fiction explores with complexity the vulnerable acts of resistance in a totalitarian bureaucracy. "Ceausescu was mad and he made half of Romania mad," she says. "I'm mad because of him."
Müller initially intended to co-write Pastior's autobiography. But when Oskar died of a heart attack in 2006, she started "The Hunger Angel" from the beginning again. “A year passed before I could bring myself to say farewell to the We and write a novel alone,” Müller explains in an afterword to The Hunger Angel.
The novel is about the survival of a fictionalized Oskar Pastior named Leopold Auberg in a forced labor camp where he works himself to near skeletal proportions. His fellow workers who, like him, shoveled coal, hauled mortar and cleared slag drift in and out of Leo’s consciousness, they mix in with his random memories and imagined experiences with his mother, father and grandparents. The powerful activity of Leo’s imagination, his poetic stream of consciousness and the transformations he experiences as he hefts the slag and coal is clearly the reason he survives. There are remembered landscapes and lovers in his memory bank, too, that hold him to life. Simple objects can take on magical forces in Müller's portrayal of the gulag, some objects were to be deadly frightened of, but some are held to be sacred, ordinary objects: scarves, shovels, handkerchieves miraculously assume mystical proportions. The novel is divided into 64 small chapters, some only a few lines long, but the center of this book is Leo’s “urge to invent escape words”.
Inside the slag Leo works in the field where they pick weeds for their watery cabbage soup dinners, but the weeds are full of lice that infest their hair and clothes: they become one of the many torments and obsessions of life in the gulag. "Life becomes little more than a formula", Leo tells us: "1 shovel load = 1 gram bread."
"My flesh was burning where the skin was scraped off my knees," Leo tells us, "and I was afraid that I couldn't be alive anymore with so much pain, and at the same time I knew I was alive because it hurt. I was afraid that death would find its way into me through this open knee and I quickly covered my knee with my hands.
"Discreetly, after work, I look at the young Russians on duty taking a shower. I’m so us I forgot why I’m looking. They would kill me if I remembered," Leo tells us.
Haunting and hovering over all life in the camp is The Hunger Angel, a personification of the all pervasive suffering of the prisoners. The "Hunger Angel" gets husbands to steal food from their wives; men to steal bread from their buddies and comrades. It degrades its victims, so that they become dehumanized. The "Hunger Angel" personifies not only the primal hunger for food--it represents the hunger for life, and no matter how harsh the circumstances, there is a hunger to keep living. The "Hunger Angel" is a life force that pushes you and mocks you," Müller writes.
Oskar Pastior spent five years in the providence and domination of The Hunger Angel. Sixty years later, he was finally released from Stalin Gulag and permitted to return to Romania.
After years of demanding access to her Securitate file, it was finally released to Herta Müller, heavily redacted, in 2009. "There are hundreds of pages of telephone transcripts. I couldn't have imagined I was so important to them. Nobody lived in the flat below me. It was a listening centre, with microphones threaded up through the floor." Müller eventually learned after The Hunger Angel was published, that Pastior had been recruited as a spy in Bucharest in 1961.
"His few reports are devoid of content. He tried everything not to get anyone into trouble. It was all because of six poems he wrote about the camp that were found in the 50s and seen as anti-Soviet. He couldn't cope with prison for 20 years. The Securitate is still in service today, Müller says: "40% of the old staff were taken over by the new Romanian Information Service. The rest are all millionaires through privatization grabs. I have packed myself into silence so deeply and for so long that I can never unpack myself using words. When I speak, I only pack myself a little differently.
After his release in 1950, Pastior still lived behind the Iron Curtain and, later, even after he abandoned his wife and escaped to Austria, society's abhorrence of homosexuality kept him in the closet. Earlier he has described the complex moves of former camp inmates recognizing but refusing to acknowledge one another on the street: "but here it’s queers: I remain unattached, he writes,"Wild animal crossings, nothing more... The urgency of lust and the fickleness of luck are now long past, even if my brain still lets itself be seduced at every turn. Sometimes it’s a certain way of walking on the street, or a pair of hands inside a shop. In the streetcar it’s a certain way of looking for a place to sit. In the train compartment the prolonged hesitation when asking: Is this seat taken, and then a certain way of stowing the luggage that confirms my intuition. In the restaurant it’s a certain way the waiter has of saying: Yes, sir, no matter what his voice is like. But to this day nothing seduces me so much as cafes. I sit at a table, sizing up the customers. With one or two men it’s certain way of slurping their coffee. And the way their lips glisten on the inside like rose quartz when they put down their cups. But only with one or two men."
No other writer has given herself so completely to our hopeful generosity. Among the shelves in our contemporary bookstores, The Hunger Angel can barely be found next to loud tomes and “literary” prize-winners and bestsellers, offering us little understanding of the Cold War and its aftermath. The seat is taken, one could say, and one can hope those hungry for authentic literature will be heard above the din of our book culture, offering us freedom.
The Hunger Angel seems to me the perfect example of Sartre’s belief that: “To write is thus both to disclose the world and to offer it as a task to the generosity of the reader”. It also exemplifies the issue of authenticity while not limiting itself or it's writer to autobiography. Müller’s notes and interviews with the person from which she will draw her main character, can also show us how linkage, history known within and by witness, contribute to a literary achievement such as this book, bearing its fruits because its roots were in the earth.
Now 59, Müller has put her own “authentically” lived life in what she terms "autofiction" for most of her life. It is an "invented reality", she says through an interpreter in one interview, "I lived through 50 or more interrogations, but I wouldn't be satisfied with directly transposing events. Working with language requires beauty for me. I doubt you could do that in the same way in a memoir.". She often invents words ("heart-beast", "breath-swing"). She writes with what she calls the "sensual" Romanian language – which she learned aged 15 – "always in my head".
What struck me in the end was, freed in a way from our consumerism, she brought the contract Sartre spoke of between writer and reader, literature's timeless work back to life, shedding light on what has been painfully missing in our current book culture.
"Anything in literature, including memory, is second-hand," Müller counters, and "the second generation will be involved through the damage done to their parents." As for those who say that gulag literature should not be so beautiful: "If we deny deported people their individuality, we put ourselves in the same position as the camps." Müller says her mother, now in Berlin aged 87, read the book, and told her: "That's how it was."
In the 1960’s and 1970’s, Roy Lichtenstein captured the iconic but cartoon surfaces of our American culture when he began exploring mass-media conventions as reflecting the new landscape of American sensibilities and expression. Lichtenstein started out with images taken from phone books and newspaper ads and comic books, and how images become iconic or meaningless, or both, when processed through a mass-market filter. The painter’s name is linked with his signature comic-book images of women, the thoughts rising in text bubbles above tentacles of tousled hair, mounds of tears leaking from their eyes. The painter’s reputation is as a prime instigator of American Pop Art. While Pop Art and Dadaism explored some of the same subjects, Pop Art replaced the perceived destructive, satirical, and anarchic impulses of the European dadaism, disdaining and banishing it, along with European modernism and deeming as elitist. This split between American and European literature has continued into these times, but not in the ways Lichtenstein and others imagined. The origins of Pop Art in North America and Great Britain developed differently. In the United States, it marked a return to hard-edged composition and representational art as a response by artists using impersonal, mundane reality, irony and parody to defuse the personal symbolism and "painterly looseness" of Abstract Expressionism. unlike contemporary "literary " fiction playing and "indicating" to a mass audience, Pop Art was meant to be as much a criticism of an American culture wrapped up consumerism as well as a reflection of the growing avalanche of mass market values taking over the culture. Pop Art was the lower end of a popular-art to fine-art continuum, using such forms as advertising images, cartoons, and science-fiction. Using the term Pop, was to say popular, appealing to a mass culture. As parody, Pop Art focused on the dynamic and paradoxical imagery of American popular culture as powerful, manipulative symbolic devices that were affecting whole patterns of life, while improving the prosperity of a society. Early Pop Art in Britain was a matter of ideas fueled by American popular culture viewed from afar, while the American artists were inspired by the experience of living within that culture of Pop Art figures where the cartoon had become more real than reality by virtue of the ubiquitous presence in everything Americans do and think.
"No words are adequate for the suffering caused by hunger," writes Müller in "The Hunger Angel". "To this day I have to show hunger that I escaped his grasp. Ever since I stopped having to go hungry, I literally eat life itself. And when I eat, I am locked up inside the taste of eating. For sixty years, ever since I came back from the camp, I have been eating against starvation.” By choosing the hunger and making it an object Müller draws us back into authenticity, the palpable, the body’s truth, she challenges the artifice of creating a pleasing, comfortable consumer-friendly, and pleasant lie. As the the Reagan era was in itself self-congratulatory, (the Cold War was supposed to be over after his STAR WARS program) there was, also, very little awareness of the many deported Germans to detention camps from Romania to Eastern bloc, literature seemed to never earn a chance to break through the glossy exterior of America’s needs for wish-fulfillment and available solutions. Though there were Eastern European writers immigrating and writing American young writers sentimentalized history as Jonathan Safran Foer's “Everything Is Illuminated” or Jonathan Franzen's “Freedom”, Jeffrey Eugenides' "The Marriage Plot", Nicole Kraus's"The History of Love" to name only a few. Where did the authentic literary confrontation with a post- Cold War world go? Why was it shunted in the service of these “consumer-friendly” entertaining portraits? Where did the raw edges, the uncomfortable truths, the endless ambiguities, and unspeakable assaults against the innocents disappear to? Was it silenced by these American entertainment values, swallowing our linkage to works outside the trends of the the here and now, the insular lives of our prosperity? Never reaching beyond the generation of America’s privileged observers and itinerate “world” travelers?
In the few years of American fiction, the list of novels receiving critical attention and major awards seem to hold in common appealing to specific a demographic and sensibility of a generation positioned to easily have consumerism as its model for success. The popularity of it's model, these works somewhat relies on the comfort and advantage a generation has been granted, spared the reality of war and casualty and yet physically “free” to travel in it, either as tourists or readers of the abundantly available historical texts, as well-educated observers with the privilege of hindsight. The part of the feeling that one’s American imagination can eliminate the gravity of situation and war, abandon the humility of not-knowing the “truth”, of using an emotionally authentic barometer centered on personal passion that had been the kingpin of our older American literary tradition from Melville to Hemingway, Henry Miller, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and John Updike; from Willa Cather to Edith Wharton, Mary McCarthy, Grace Paley and Toni Morrison. In short, cutting off influence as Bloom means it (how linkages to Western literature of the past informs us, and literary style, content. And in recognizing these linkages we enter the labyrinthine inheritance of literature’s influences, experiments, and traditions from the past.
It seems now that inauthenticity has quietly entered American fiction instead, slipping by us so expertly, skillfully, and it has regrettably moved to center stage as “literary” fiction. Yet, as Harold Bloom had written, “Literary can only mean literature…” I think this when I read a lot of contemporary portrayals of the Soviet Union. Far from Solzhenitsyn’s stark and powerful, authentically lived and deeply felt prose, or Gunter Grass' uses of surrealism, the best selling fiction about Russia has sentimentalized history into "goofy" characters sliding like skaters on the ice without a fall, and most are written by one generational demographics from privileged educations where the facts of history was readily available, filtered and distilled through academic texts. As contemporary novels about the holocaust are much more comforting to large audiences than Primo Levi’s classic The Periodic Table. Invented not through direct experience, or personal "anguish"; far from Hemingway's war novels, or Mailer's The Dead (Mailer also was a soldier in World War II, as was Kurt Vonnegut) it seems a synthetic, consumer-friendly rendering of our post Cold War world has surfaced. and there seems little or no discussion about authenticity. Imagination and invention have always been the touchstones of literature, so this is not saying a writer should not or cannot enter a fictionally created universe but even fictional worlds need to be felt as genuine, not built from a privileged distance and pretension that assume authority over the chaos of life. Bloom later exerts that contemporaneous “consumer” literature, focused on trend, cannot have linkage to the literature of the past, loses an anteriority, it’s much like being caught in a tunnel without knowing the tunnels’ entrance or exit, trapped and blind-sided.
Sartre described “bad faith” as a lack of authenticity.. Sartre gives the example a café waiter, “whose movements and conversation are a little too "waiter-esque". His voice oozes with an eagerness to please; he carries food rigidly and ostentatiously; "his movement is quick and forward, a little too precise, a little too rapid". His exaggerated behavior illustrates that he is play acting as a waiter, as an object in the world: an automaton whose essence is to be a waiter. But that he is obviously acting belies that he is aware that he is not (merely) a waiter, but is rather consciously deceiving himself”. Another way of framing this is by introducing "indication" in acting, an actor whose gestures only indicating rather than living moments on a stage, playing to an audience rather than using a personal, impassioned center, irregardless of the audience's need for "entertainment" because his work is meant to truthfully express character and situation.
A canon based on this discontinuity of literature cannot sustain serious literary work. Banishing modernistic prose with its poetic, internal condensation of language from the literary marketplace, and promoting novels in which things can be willed and freely resolved, reduced to a limited but comfortable comprehension is, nonetheless, self-deceiving. That anguish and helplessness innate to human existence, that discomfort and that truth-telling, providing us a linkage and a bridge to timelessness and our authentic, fragile, universal and all too human selves. For me, Müller's uncompromising work, born from her own personal experience, however painful and hard to bear at times, is the anguish of a writer unwilling to surrender to our times, some echo perhaps, a linkage not only to European modernism, but to what is most authentic in ourselves and in our world, offering the reader and the writer a lasting collaboration.