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Horror of forced labour laid bare

Herta Muller, who won the 2009 Nobel Prize for Literature, grew up in a German community in Romania.

In 1945, the Russians demanded that all Romanian Germans between 17 and 45 be deported to labour camps in the Soviet Union to rebuild the country.

Muller's mother spent five years in such a camp, but it was through talking to another Romanian victim of the 1945 decree, the poet Oskar Pastior, that this novel came about. She spent many hours with him discussing his experiences in the camp and filled four notebooks, planning to write a book with him, but he died suddenly in 2006. In her Afterword here she says: "A year passed before I could bring myself to say farewell to the We and write a novel alone."

The novel is narrated by Leo Auberg, looking back on his years as a young man spent in a labour camp beside a coal plant. The last words his grandmother says to him as he leaves home are, "I know you'll return" and in the years to follow her words become "the hunger angel's adversary", a kind of mantra he uses to preserve his sanity and his will to live. "And because I did come back, I can say: a sentence like that keeps you alive."

This is a harrowing story of gruelling labour and constant hunger, but Leo, like the man on whom he is based, has a poet's sensibilities and can describe everything in the camp and every nuance of his experience with passionate intensity. The painstaking account of camp conditions in Solzhenitsyn's One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich is here too, but Muller couples this with a searing examination of Leo's inner life as the cold, exhaustion and hunger take hold of him and his fellow workers.

The heightened, at times hallucinatory lucidity that Leo's hunger brings about makes the humblest of things the subject of intense meditation, whether they be the manual labour tasks he is set, the few objects and clothes he possesses, or even the commodities with which he works, as many of the chapter titles attest – "Cement", "On Coal", "On Slag". All take him to the simple equation that defines his existence: "1 shovel load = 1 gram of bread."

Thus a particular, heart-shaped shovel he favours for unloading coal from a lorry becomes an almost sacred object for him: "I myself could do without the shovel. But my hunger depends on it. I wish the heart-shovel were my tool. But the shovel is the master, and I am the tool. I submit to its rule - I ought to thank it, because when I shovel for my bread I am distracted from my hunger."

What is involved in unloading a lorry-load of coal is described with forensic precision, the series of stances and movements Leo must adopt to do the job right – "with your left foot gracefully poised, its heel lifted as though dancing, so nothing but the tip of your big toe has any purchase -"

Thus, too, the cement with which he works is animated to the point of becoming a fugitive, treacherous spirit. The workers are accused of wasting it or even stealing it, but "the cement scatters on its own, it squanders itself, it could not be more miserly towards us. We live the way the cement wants us to. Cement is the thief, he has robbed us, not the other way around." Leo becomes "cement-sick" and everything he sees looks made of cement, prompting him to ask himself "I'm made of cement, too, and there's less and less of me. So why can't I disappear?"

Hunger itself becomes an object, a constant, palpable presence, more powerful than Leo's sense of self or will to live. He talks of taking his hunger out into the sun to warm it. He remonstrates with "the hunger angel" again and again, but it won't let go of him.

In their last year in the camp before being released and allowed to return home, the camp workers are paid something for their work and can go to the market to buy food and clothes. They become re-nourished within a few weeks and "we became men and women again, as though we were experiencing a second puberty". The women even buy rope to unravel, from which they crochet bras and stockings, and wear rouge; the men make shoes and hats from cloth and rubber. Their timid efforts to regain some sense of humanity are keenly poignant, as is their consensus, on release, never to talk about their experience in the camp.

The power and poetic intensity of Muller's writing make The Hunger Angel one of the most imaginative and memorable novels about life in a concentration camp.

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