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The Hunger Angel: A Novel, Page 2

Herta Müller

  The train rolled on for 12 or 14 days, countless hours without stopping. Then it stopped for countless hours without moving. We didn’t know where we were at any given moment. Except when someone on one of the top bunks could read a station sign through the narrow trap window: BUZĂU. The iron stove in the middle of the train car crackled. Bottles of liquor passed from hand to hand. Everyone was tipsy: some from drink, others from uncertainty. Or both.

  The phrase HAULED OFF BY THE RUSSIANS came to mind, and all that might mean, but it didn’t cause us despair. They couldn’t line us up against the wall until we got there, and for the moment we were still moving. The fact that they hadn’t lined us up against the wall and shot us long ago, as we had been led to expect from the Nazi propaganda at home, made us practically giddy. In the cattle car the men learned to drink just for the sake of drinking. The women learned to sing just for the sake of singing:

  The daphne’s blooming in the wood

  The ditches still have snow

  The letter that you sent to me

  Has filled my heart with woe

  Always the same solemn song, to the point where you no longer knew whether it was really being sung or not, because the air was singing. The song rocked back and forth inside your head, and fit the rhythm of the ride—a Cattle Car Blues, a Song of the Time Set in Motion. It became the longest song of my life, the women sang it for five whole years, until the song became as homesick as we were.

  The sliding door, which had been sealed from the outside, was opened four times. Twice, when we were still on Romanian soil, they tossed half a goat inside the car. The animal had been skinned and sawed lengthwise in two. It was frozen stiff and crashed onto the floor. The first time we thought the goat was wood for burning. We broke the carcass into pieces and put it on the fire. It was so dry and scrawny it didn’t stink at all, and it burned well. The second time we heard the word PASTRAMA: air-dried meat for eating. We burned our second goat, too, and laughed. It was every bit as stiff and blue as the first one, a ghastly bundle of bones. But we were too quick to laugh, it was arrogant of us to spurn those two kindly Romanian goats.

  Familiarity increased as time passed. In the cramped space, people performed the little tasks: sitting down, getting up. Rummaging through suitcases, taking things out, fitting them back in. Going to the toilet hole behind two raised blankets. Every tiny detail brought another in its wake. Inside a cattle car, you lose the traits that make you distinct. You exist more among others than by yourself. There’s no need for special consideration. People are simply there together, one for the other, like at home. Perhaps I’m only talking about myself when I say that today. Perhaps that wasn’t even true for me. Perhaps the cramped quarters of the cattle car softened me, because I wanted to leave anyway, and I had enough to eat in my suitcase. We had no idea about the savage hunger that would soon attack us. During the next five years, when the hunger angel descended upon us, how often did we look like those stiff blue goats. And how mournfully did we long for them.

  We were now in the Russian night, Romania lay behind us. We felt a strong jolt and waited for an hour while the train axles were switched to steppe-gauge, to accommodate the broader Russian track. There was so much snow outside it lit up the night. Our third stop was in an empty field. The Russian guards shouted UBORNAYA. All the doors of all the cars were opened. We tumbled out, one after the other, into the low-lying snowland, sinking in up to our knees. Without understanding the actual word, we sensed that ubornaya meant a communal toilet stop. High overhead, very high, the round moon. Our breath flew in front of our faces, glittering white like the snow under our feet. Machine pistols on all sides, leveled. And now: Pull down your pants.

  The embarrassment, the shame of the world. How good that this snowland was so alone with us, that no one was watching it force us close together to do the same thing. I didn’t need to, but I pulled down my pants and crouched. How mean and how still this nightland was, how it embarrassed us as we attended to our needs. How to my left Trudi Pelikan hoisted her bell-coat up under her arms and pulled her pants below her ankles, the hissing between her shoes. How the lawyer Paul Gast groaned as he tried to force a movement, how his wife Heidrun’s bowels croaked from diarrhea. How all around the stinking warm steam immediately froze and glistened in the air. How the snowland meted out its drastic treatment, leaving each of us to our desolation, our bare bottoms, and the noise of our intestines. How pitiful our entrails became in their common condition.

  Perhaps it was my terror, more than myself, that grew up so suddenly that night. Perhaps this was the only way for us to recognize our common condition. Because every one of us, without exception, automatically turned to face the track as we took care of our needs. All of us kept the moon to our backs, we refused to let the open door of the cattle car out of our sight, we needed it like the door to a room. We had the crazy fear that the doors might shut without us and the train drive away. One of us cried out into the vast night: So here we are, the Shitting Saxons. Wasting away in more ways than one. Well, you’re all happy to be alive—I’m right, aren’t I. He gave an empty laugh like tin. Everyone moved away from him. Then he had room around him and took a bow, like an actor, and repeated in a solemn, lofty tone: It’s true, isn’t it—you’re all happy to be alive.

  An echo rang in his voice. A few people started to cry, the air was like glass. His face was submerged in madness. The drool on his jacket had glazed over. Then I noticed his badge: it was the man with the albatross buttons. He stood all by himself, sobbing like a child. Now all that was next to him was the fouled snow. And behind him: the frozen world and the moon, as on an X-ray.

  The locomotive let out a dull whistle. The deepest UUUUH I ever heard. Everyone pushed to get to the door. We climbed in and rode on.

  I would have recognized the man even without his badge. But I never saw him in the camp.


  None of the underclothes they issued us had buttons. The undershirts and the long underpants each had two small ties. The pillowcases had two sets of ties. By night the pillowcase was a pillowcase. By day it was a canvas sack you carried with you for whatever might come your way, also for stealing and begging.

  We stole before, during, and after work, though never while begging—which we referred to as going door-to-door—and never from a neighbor in the barrack. Nor was it stealing when on the way home after work we combed the rubble heaps, picking weeds until our pillow was full. As early as March the women from the country spotted the edible orach with the serrated leaves they called MELDE. Here it was called LOBODA. We also picked wild dill, a kind of grass with feathery leaves. But none of it was any good unless you had salt. And you could only get salt by bartering at the market. The salt was gray and coarse like gravel, you had to break it up. Salt was worth a fortune. We had two recipes for orach:

  Salt the leaves and tear the wild dill into tiny bits and sprinkle on top and eat raw, like field greens. Or else boil the stems whole, in salt water. Fished out of the pot with a spoon, orach stems make a delightful mock spinach. The broth can also be drunk, either as a clear soup or a green tea.

  Spring orach is tender, the whole plant finger-high and silver-green. By early summer it’s knee-high and the leaves are splayed. Each leaf can look like a different glove, always with the thumb pointing down. When silvery green like that, the orach is a cool plant, a food for spring. You have to watch out in summer, though, because it quickly grows tall and dense, with hard, woody stems. Then it tastes bitter, like loam. Eventually the plant forms a thick middle stalk that reaches up to your waist, and spreads out into a loose shrub. And by midsummer the leaves and stems start to take on color: first pink, then blood-red, later a reddish purple, and in the fall a deep indigo. Each stem develops clusters of flowers, just like stinging nettle. But the orach clusters don’t hang, they stick out, angled upward. They, too, turn from pink to indigo.

  It’s strange: the orach isn’t really beautiful until it begins to change co
lor, long after it ceases to be edible. Then the plant lingers along the wayside, protected by its beauty. The time for eating orach is over. But not the hunger, which is always greater than we are.

  What can be said about chronic hunger. Perhaps that there’s a hunger that can make you sick with hunger. That it comes in addition to the hunger you already feel. That there is a hunger which is always new, which grows insatiably, which pounces on the never-ending old hunger that already took such effort to tame. How can you face the world if all you can say about yourself is that you’re hungry. If you can’t think of anything else. Your mouth begins to expand, its roof rises to the top of your skull, all senses alert for food. When you can no longer bear the hunger, your whole head is racked with pain, as though the pelt from a freshly skinned hare were being stretched out to dry inside. Your cheeks wither and get covered with pale fur.

  I never knew whether the orach should be reproached for being inedible, for turning woody and refusing to cooperate. Did the plant know that it no longer served us and our hunger, but rather the hunger angel. The red flower clusters were jeweled ornaments around the neck of the hunger angel. From the first frost in early autumn, the orach put on more and more jewelry, until it froze to death. Poisonously beautiful colors that stabbed our eyes. The clusters, countless rows of red necklaces along every wayside, adorned the hunger angel. He had his jewels. And we had our mouths, which had grown so high and hollow that our steps echoed inside. A bright void in the skull, as if we’d swallowed too much glaring light. A light that sweetly creeps up your throat and swells and rises to your brain. Until you no longer have a brain inside your head, only the hunger echo. No words are adequate for the suffering caused by hunger. 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.

  I looked at the orach that could no longer be eaten and tried to think about something else—about the last tired warmth of late summer, before the ice-winter came. But instead I thought about the potatoes we didn’t have. And about the women who lived on the kolkhoz who probably did have potatoes in their daily cabbage soup. Though apart from that, no one envied them. They lived in holes in the earth and had to work much longer every day than we did: from dawn to dusk.

  Springtime in the camp was the season for cooking orach picked off the rubble heap. The German name MELDE sounded as if it meant more than it did. In fact, MELDE was for us a word without any overtone, a word that left us in peace. It wasn’t the MELDE DICH—present yourself—of roll call. This MELDE wasn’t a roll-call weed, but a wayside word. If anything, it was a word for after evening roll call, an after-roll-call weed. Because we couldn’t cook our orach until we had been counted, and that took forever because the numbers never came out right.

  There were five work battalions, or ORBs—Otdyel’niy Rabochiy Batal’on—in our camp, each consisting of between five hundred and eight hundred internees. I was assigned to battalion number 1009, and my work number was 756.

  For the Appell, or roll call, we stood in rank and file—what an expression for those five miserable regiments of swollen eyes, large noses, hollow cheeks. Our stomachs and legs were distended from the brown bog water. In freezing cold or searing heat, we spent entire evenings standing at attention. Only the lice were allowed to move. During the endless counting they could drink their fill, parade across our miserable flesh, crawl over us from head to pubic hair for hours on end. And after they were sated and resting in the seams of our quilted work clothes, we’d still be standing at attention. And Shishtvanyonov, our camp commandant, would still be screaming. We didn’t know his first name. He was simply Tovarishch Shishtvanyonov. But that was long enough to make you stammer with fear whenever you said it. For me the sound always conjured the rumble of the deportation locomotive. And the white alcove in the church at home, HEAVEN SETS TIME IN MOTION. Perhaps we had to stand so long to stop the time in motion. Our bones became heavy as iron. When the flesh on your body disappears, your bones become a burden, and the ground pulls you downward.

  I practiced forgetting myself during roll call, to the point where I couldn’t tell breathing out from breathing in. I practiced rolling my eyes up without lifting my head, to look for a corner of cloud where I might hang my bones. If I was able to forget myself, and found the heavenly hook, it held on to me. But often there was no cloud, only blue sky, like open water.

  Often there was nothing but an unbroken cover of clouds, a uniform gray.

  Often the clouds were running, and no hook could hold fast.

  Often the rain burned my eyes and glued my clothes to my skin.

  Often the frost bit into my entrails.

  On days like that the sky lifted my eyes up, and the roll call pulled them down—then my bones just hung inside me, with nothing to hold on to.

  The kapo, Tur Prikulitsch, strutted back and forth between us and Commandant Shishtvanyonov, his lists slipping out of his hands, dog-eared from constant leafing. Every time he called out a number, his chest wobbled like a rooster’s. His hands were still a child’s. My hands grew in the camp: square, hard, and flat, like two boards.

  If someone screwed up his courage after roll call and asked one of the nachal’niks, or even Commandant Shishtvanyonov, when we would be going home, they would say curtly: SKORO—soon.

  This Russian SOON robbed us of the longest time in the world.

  Tur Prikulitsch had Oswald Enyeter, the barber, trim his nose hairs and fingernails. The two men came from the same region, near Rachiv in the Carpatho-Ukraine, where three lands meet. I asked if it was customary in that part of the world for barbers to trim the nails of their better clients. The barber said: No, it’s not. That comes from Tur, not from home. What’s from home is five coming after nine. What do you mean, I asked. That things are a little balamuc. What’s that, I asked. All mixed up, like a madhouse.

  Tur Prikulitsch spoke Russian as well as German. He wasn’t Russian like Shishtvanyonov, nonetheless he belonged to the Russians, not to us. He was interned along with us, but he was the adjutant of the camp administration. He translated the Russian commands and added his own in German. He divided us into work battalions on a sheet of paper, assigning each name and work number to a specific battalion. That way he had an overview of everything. Each of us had to know his number day and night and never forget that we were not private individuals but numbered laborers.

  In the columns next to our names Tur Prikulitsch wrote: kolkhoz, factory, rubble removal, sand transport, rail segment, construction, coal transport, garage, coke battery, slag cellar. Everything depended on what he wrote in that column. Whether we would end up tired, dog tired, or dead tired. Whether we would have time and energy to go door-to-door after work. Whether we’d be able to rummage around in the kitchen waste behind the mess hall unnoticed.

  Tur Prikulitsch himself never went to work, never had to report to any battalion or brigade or shift. He ruled and was therefore alert and disparaging. When he smiled it was a trap. When you returned his smile—and everyone had to—you felt you were his fool. Tur Prikulitsch smiles because he’s entered something in the column next to your name, some new and worse assignment. Between the barracks, along the main street of the camp, I avoid him, preferring to keep enough distance to make speaking impossible. He lifts his legs high when he walks and carefully places his shiny shoes on the ground like two patent-leather purses, as if the empty time were dropping out of him, right through his soles. He notices everything. People say that even what he forgets becomes an order.

  At the barber’s I’m no match for Tur Prikulitsch. He says whatever he wants, there’s no risk. It’s in his interest to insult us. He knows he has to keep us in our place, so things stay the way they are. He stretches out his neck and always talks down to us. He has the whole day to admire himself. I admire him as well: he’s a
thletically built, with brass-colored eyes and an oily gaze, small ears that lie flat like two brooches, a porcelain chin, nostrils pink like tobacco flowers, a neck like candle wax. He’s fortunate that he never has to get dirty. And this good fortune makes him more attractive than he deserves to be. He doesn’t know the hunger angel, so he can give commands at roll call, strut around the camp, smile cunningly in the barber room. But he can’t take part in our conversation. I know more about Tur Prikulitsch than he would like, because I know Bea Zakel well. She is his mistress.