Monday, August 20, 2012

The Hunger Angel – Herta Müller

Summary from A masterful new novel from the winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize, hailed for depicting the "landscape of the dispossessed" with "the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose" (Nobel Prize Committee)
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.
In her new novel, Nobel laureate Herta Müller calls upon her unique combination of poetic intensity and dispassionate precision to conjure the distorted world of the labor camp in all its physical and moral absurdity. She has given Leo the language to express the inexpressible, as hunger sharpens his senses into an acuity that is both hallucinatory and profound. In scene after disorienting scene, the most ordinary objects accrue tender poignancy as they acquire new purpose—a gramophone box serves as a suitcase, a handkerchief becomes a talisman, an enormous piece of casing pipe functions as a lovers' trysting place. The heart is reduced to a pump, the breath mechanized to the rhythm of a swinging shovel, and coal, sand, and snow have a will of their own. 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.

My Review: I was provided with an ARC from Holt Publishing to review, and I was so excited.  I hoped I'd fall in love with this book and be able to share that with others. The first few pages of this book captivated me.  Müller’s writing was so poetic, I was determined to love the book.  However, about a hundred pages into the book, the writing that was so poetic wore on me.  It started to feel so forced, contrived, I would find myself putting the book down midsentence and walking away for days at a time, which is really not me. 

Second, I was expecting to experience Leo’s journey in the labor camp, and this book is more  of a collection of vignettes, of snippets of his five years, and I found myself vehemently not caring.  It didn't feel like the stories were in any particular order, simply short stories mushed together, and that really frustrated me.

I only lasted through two thirds of the book, and then I up and quit.  I was frustrated at the lack of movement, at the complete absence of any character growth or regression, that I realized I’d rather pilfer my kids’ reading stashes than continue.  It broke my heart, too … for me, walking away from an unfinished book is as aggravating as only hearing the “Shave and a haircut” notes, and waiting in vain for the “two bits!”.

My Rating:  One and a half stars.

Sum it Up:  A glimpse of a prisoner of Soviet Russia and his struggle to define his humanity inside the labor camp.

For Sensitive Readers:  Mentions of homosexuality, a pretty savage beating, and other acts as you’d expect in a World War II-era labor camp.

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