Portobello, £14.99 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

The Hunger Angel, By Herta Müller, trans. Philip Boehm

This stark novel of deprivation and survival makes us see, and feel, the reality of the camps

The Nobel Prize-winner Herta Müller's novel of the suffering endured by the poet Oskar Pastior, when part of a group of ethnic Germans deported from Romania by the Soviets after the Second World War, follows in the tradition of works by survivors of forced labour camps of which Solzhenitsyn's A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch is probably still the most famous. Müller takes us beyond pain, beyond politics and into the unrecognisable.

What is unrecognisable is not the daily drudgery of the camp that gay, middle-class, cultured Leo Auberg (based on Pastior), who has known it was only a matter of time before the Soviets picked him up in Hermannstadt and bundled into a truck, must get used to. And it's not the dreariness of the place, out in the steppes, or the constant bodily searches for lice, or the back-breaking labour with cement or coal or sand that gets into the skin and never comes off, or the lack of privacy that means men and women copulate in an old pipe when they get the chance, or the random cruelty of the guards. All of this we have seen before, in accounts by concentration camp survivors kept prisoner by the Nazis; all of this, to an extent, we have come prepared for. It's the kind of suffering we recognise.

Knowing that we know this, Müller offers us what we may not know so well. But can she resist making a fetish of the particular pain Leo suffers? Can any writer? It is impossible, perhaps, and so Leo must fetishise his hunger for Müller and for us. We may understand how hunger can take over everything; we may see in the tiny bread pieces kept and gathered for later, if he can stand to wait, the human instinct to plan ahead. We may recognise the barbarism to which hunger drives people, as one man is almost beaten to death for stealing the breadcrumbs another prisoner has been saving. But do we recognise the devotion Leo irrationally holds for his hunger angel? "Hunger is an object. The angel has climbed into my brain. The angel doesn't think. He thinks straight."

When Leo is released, five years later, he is still, and always will be, hungry: "To this day its hunger bites the middle out of every other feeling. And what's left in the middle of me is emptiness." Müller's extraordinarily clear and dispassionate novel is testament to one man's survival, but throughout it carries the notion of debt owed: to Oskar Pastior, to her mother who spent five years in a labour camp, to all those who suffered. That debt doesn't weigh it down so much as anchor it in the necessity of understanding, to make us see what we do not recognise.

Lesley McDowell's 'Between The Sheets' is published by Duckworth

Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living