Herta Müller "The Hunger Angel" US Tour Concludes at Library of Congress
"Und ich glaube…das Schweigen ist auch eine Stärke."
"And I believe…that silence, too, is a strength." -- Herta Müller
Enlarge image The author at work (© Goethe-Institut Washington / Wood Powell) Growing up in the rural village of Nitchidorf in western Romania in the 1950s, Herta Müller heard whispers of a dark memory from the recent past. Speaking openly about the deportation of the Banat Swabians, an ethnic German minority to which Müller’s family belonged, in the years after World War II was taboo. Her mother was among those who had suffered five years in a Soviet work camp in present-day Ukraine, shovelling coal and enduring endless hunger. “These furtive conversations were a part of my childhood,” she wrote. “Though I did not understand their content, I could sense their fear.”
Enlarge image Herta Müller reading from Atemschaukel (© Goethe-Institut Washington / Wood Powell) This fear and silence Müller carried with her, but she did not let it silence her. Rather, the silence became the starting point for her own writing. Her most recent novel, The Hunger Angel, originally published as Atemschaukel in 2009, tells of the experience of a Soviet labor camp, seen through the eyes of the young Leo Auberg. For the protagonist, surviving on scraps of bread and weeds, hunger becomes a thing, personified as an angel that appears in chapter after chapter.
Müller could not have written The Hunger Angel without the long conversations with Oskar Pastior, the Romanian-born German poet, translator and camp survivor on whom Auberg is based. Though she originally started taking notes on the stories of former deportees from her village in 2001, neither these conversations nor those with her mother provided the detail she required.
Enlarge image Herta Müller enjoying a light moment with Philip Boehm (© Goethe-Institut Washington / Wood Powell) In 2004, she travelled with Pastior to the old camp in the Donbas region of Ukraine—an experience essential to the novel Müller had in mind. During the trip, Müller was not sure how Pastior would react, and was surprised when he ate and ate and appeared in good spirits. Müller filled notebooks with the memories and the language of Pastior—he had created the word “hunger angel” in the camp—and planned to write the book with him.
After Pastior died suddenly in 2006, however, Müller could not bring herself to look at the notebooks for months. Eventually, however, she reasoned Pastior would have wanted to finish the book, and so she took up the project once again. Atemschaukel was published in 2009, the same year she won the Nobel Prize in literature. The Hunger Angel, the English translation by Philip Boehm, was published in April 2012.
Touring the US with the Goethe-Institut
Enlarge image Wilfried Eckstein, Director of the Goethe-Institut Washington (left), with Herta Müller and Philip Boehm (© Goethe-Institut Washington / Wood Powell) Herta Müller told this story of how The Hunger Angel came to be at a special event at the Library of Congress, co-hosted with the Goethe-Institut Washington, on May 15. Several hundred people filled the Montpelier Room to hear Müller and Boehm read alternating sections from the original German and English versions of the book, and to listen to a conversation with Müller moderated by Georgetown University German professor Peter Pfeiffer. Thereafter, attendees had the chance to ask Müller to sign their books, which she did graciously.
The event was the final stop of a US tour that began in New York on May 3, when Müller gave a reading and signing at the Deutsches Haus at NYU as part of the PEN World Voices Festival. Additional stops on the tour, Müller’s first visit to the US in over a decade, included Chicago on May 9, where she read from The Hunger Angel at the Poetry Foundation, and Boston on May 11, where she appeared at the Goethe-Institut. At each stop Müller drew many fans eager to catch a glimpse of the charismatic, prize-winning writer.
Enlarge image Herta Müller at the PEN World Voices Festival in New York, May 3, 2012. (© Deutsches Haus at NYU) That the Goethe-Institut, Germany’s worldwide cultural organization, took the lead in organizing Herta Müller’s US tour was very fitting. In fact, Herta Müller has been associated with the institution since the early 1980s, when she still lived in Communist Romania. The Goethe-Institut encouraged her from early on with support for translations (her work has been translated into over 20 languages), symposia, and more.
As fortune would have it, Consul General in Chicago Onno Hückmann was Cultural Attache at the West German Embassy in Bucharest at the time, and his wife Martina was head librarian at the Goethe-Institut. Herta Müller’s appearance in Chicago therefore had a particular personal significance, as described in Hückmann’s speech (see right column).
How many beds in the barracks?
Enlarge image Herta Müller signing The Hunger Angel (© Goethe-Institut Washington / Wood Powell) The Hunger Angel may be largely based on Oskar Pastior, but the importance of Herta Müller’s mother to the novel, whose language straddles the boundry between poetry and prose, cannot be ignored. When Müller asked how many beds had been in the camp barracks, her mother would not—or could not—respond.
“And she said ‘I don’t know.’ Maybe she can’t talk about it,” Müller said at the Library of Congress event. “And I believe…that silence is also a strength.”
When moderator Pfeiffer asked if her mother had read the book, Müller responded hesitantly, “Yes…she says ‘yes,’” drawing laughter from the audience.
“My mother is a simple woman; she’s not really interested in what I’m writing,” Müller said. “I’m her child, not her author, and I think that’s the way it should be. She finds it all kind of odd, and says ‘just be careful you don’t have a nervous breakdown.’”
Having read The Hunger Angel, however, Herta Müller’s mother broke her silence, even if for a moment.
“Now she has said that’s exactly how it was. And I believe her. I believe she read it.”