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.
M ller (The Land of Green Plums), winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize for Literature, introduces readers to Leo Auberg, a young closeted homosexual German-Romanian who recalls in powerfully vivid vignettes the delirium of the five "skinandbones" years he spent in a Soviet forced labor camp. Charged with "rebuilding" the war-torn Soviet Union, workers struggle under the specter of the figurative "hunger angel" and the work camp's absurd mathematics of misery, which hold that "1 shovel load = 1 gram bread." Leo's voice is wry and poetic, and M ller's evocative language makes the abstract concrete as her narrator's sanity is stretched; Leo posits that "Hunger is an object," and that death lives in the hollows of the cheeks as a white hare. Indeed, Leo's grimly surreal meditations on hunger seem all the more true for their strangeness; the cold slag in which he toils smells "a little like lilacs" and his "sweaty neck like honey tea." Juxtaposed with Leo's musings are observations on life in the camp, and brief dramas with other workers. Under M ller's influence, the subject matter not only begs a reader's sympathy, but deftly illuminates the complex psychological state of starvation and displacement, wherein the physical world is reconstituted according to the skewed architecture of oppression and suffering. Boehm's translation preserves the integrity of M ller's gorgeous prose, and Leo's despondent reveries are at once tragic and engrossing.
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Beautiful, poetic, tragic, a masterpiece
No other words can describe this poignant story.