The book for March will be Herta Müller's The Hunger Angel.
In January 1945, the Russians demanded that all Romanian Germans between 17 and 45 be relocated to labor camps in the Soviet Union to rebuild the devastated country. Müller’s mother was sent there for five years. Half a century later, Müller spent many hours talking with another Romanian victim of that decree, the poet Oskar Pastior. She filled four notebooks with what he told her and planned a book about it with him until he died, suddenly, in 2006. “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 book follows a 17-year-old named Leo Auberg to the labor camp where he works himself to the bone shoveling coal, hauling mortar and clearing slag. His fellow workers drift in and out of Leo’s life, scarcely more vivid than his memories and imagined encounters with his parents and grandparents. Indeed, the power of Leo’s imagination is the secret both of his survival and of Müller’s novel. There is no narrative here comparable to the “Huck Finn in Auschwitz” story of “Fatelessness” or the autobiographical encounters and speculations in Levi’s “Periodic Table” and “If This Is a Man”; what we have instead are the brilliant poetic ruminations and transformations of this young man as he deals with the slag and coal he digs and heaves from dawn to dusk every day. They are the landscapes and amorous meetings that his imagination recreates. They are what holds him to life and us to this book.
The novel is divided into 64 small chapters, some but a few lines long. This removes the sting of the endless descriptions and our expectations of narrative development. We do have recurring characters, both harsh and benevolent, and Leo’s eventual return to his family (including a baby brother he resents for drawing attention from his amazing, terrible years), but the heart of this book is Leo’s “urge to invent escape words.”
From the New York Times.