The Nobelist Ladies

If you are familiar with Toni Morrison’s work (who isn’t?), you will want to read her new novella, Home, in one sitting.  It will take only two or three hours, and that one sitting will help you keep in mind the story’s beautiful symmetry.  Home is a reverse journey, a return to an earlier place, a going back instead of forward—at least physically—though it can just as easily be argued that the protagonist (Frank Money) advances as much as he retreats.  And that metaphor of advancing is especially suitable, given the fact that Frank has recently returned from the war in Korea.  He’s been traumatized by horrific events but is equally unsettled when he realizes that he’s returned to the same racist country he left before he departed to fight for America.

There is also a reverse migration because Frank’s story begins in the North.  He’s pretty much decided he will never return to Lotus, Georgia where he grew up until he receives a letter about his younger sister, Cee, warning him that she is fatally ill and he’d better get home as quickly as he can if he has any intention of ever seeing her again.  The problem is that even though he’s got a girl, Frank’s pretty much in a vegetative state, too often sitting and staring into space.  He makes the decision to help his sister, but even that plan is frequently thwarted by others.  He’s accused of vagrancy and clapped in jail in one town but manages to escape and is helped by a clergyman who gives him enough money to get him to the next place.  He’s mugged, loses all his money, but helped, again, by other black people, as he inches closer and closer to his sister, Cee, and his childhood origins.

“Lotus, Georgia, is the worst place in the world, worse than any battlefield.  At least on the field there is a goal, excitement, daring, and some chance of winning along with many chances of losing.  Death is a sure thing but life is just as certain.  Problem is you can’t know in advance.  In Lotus you did know in advance since there was no future, just long stretches of killing time.  There was no goal other than breathing, nothing to win and, save for somebody else’s quiet death, nothing to survive or worth surviving for.”

That’s pretty much rock bottom, supported by numerous flashbacks in the story, almost all of them depicting violence against black people: lynchings, black families being run out of Texas, and—in the worst incident (which involves Frank’s sister, Cee,) becoming a guinea pig for a Southern white doctor who shares affinities with Josef Mengele.  Frank’s two closest buddies, whom he grew up with, were both killed in Korea, contributing to—if not responsible for—his PTS.  You could say that Toni Morrison’s picture of Frank Money’s America mirrors the horrors of what we have seen in her earlier novels, but that analysis, in fact, would be inaccurate, superficial.

Above all, Home demonstrates a sense of community, not just within the physical environment of one’s origins but also with the assistance that total strangers offer Frank Money.  The poorest people in the country extend a hand, share, and rehabilitate others when necessary.  These values are shown to be so redemptive that they cancel out what many people believe to be natural instincts of revenge, of payback, of an eye-for-an-eye and a tooth-for-a-tooth.

To reveal anything else would be unfair.  Home is an engaging narrative, full of surprises and profundities for such a slim book.  If you haven’t read Morrison’s earlier novels The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon, and Beloved, then start with them in that order.  Otherwise, set aside part of an afternoon or an evening and lose yourself in the richness and complexity of Toni Morrison’s eighth novel.

With Herta Müller’s new novel, The Hunger Angel, there is also a journey within a context even darker than Morrison’s. Müller won the Nobel Prize in 2009.  Though she is Romanian, she writes in German and much of her fiction, including the current novel, mirrors her country’s totalitarianism.  In this case, the focus is on the Fascist era at the end of World War II, when Romania—formerly an ally of Nazi Germany—turned to Russia and sent all the Germans who were living in the country to the Soviet Union.  Ostensibly, those thousands of people (settled in forced labor-camps) were sent to Russia to help rebuild the war-ravaged country.  In an Afterword to her novel, Müller states that her story about a man named Leo Auberg was based on actual incidents in the life of a Romanian poet whose name is Oskar Pastior.

What is so unique about this account of work within a concentration camp is the manner in which Müller narrates much of the plot.  The opening chapter shows us seventeen-year-old Leo’s departure for the camp, but once he arrives, the “story” is conveyed more by objects than by incidents.  It’s a remarkable way of depicting the depravities of living under such appalling circumstances.  Thus, the first chapter after Leo’s arrival is titled “Orach,” the name for a local weed which is edible during certain periods of the year.  And since there is so little food for any of the laborers, they all hoard as much of the plant as possible and eat it to supplement the food (mostly cabbage and potatoes severed as a thin gruel) provided by the state.  The problem with orach is that it grows so quickly in the summer that it begins to taste bitter, and it becomes so tough that it is more like stinging nettles than tender leaves.  In the fall, “The time for eating orach is over.  But not the hunger, which is always greater than we are.”

Leo asks, “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 extend, 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.”

Even worse, the cement that Leo has to work with (described in the following chapter titled “Cement”) works its way into all of the pores of your body: “The cement eats away at your gums.  When you open your mouth your lips tear like the cement-sack paper.  So you keep your mouth shut and obey.”   All of the inmates in the camp lose weight, “When the flesh on your body disappears, your bones become a burden, and the ground pulls you downward.”  Relating his story of incarceration decades after he was released, Leo says, “For sixty years, ever since I came back from the camp, I have been eating against starvation.”

The Hunger Angel is a bleak story not so far removed from Blaine Harden’s Escape from Camp 14 (see CounterPunch, April 13th).  Leo works for five years, mining coal, making bricks and cinder blocks, moving them manually from one place to another.  There is a vague sense of camaraderie within the camp, but because of the constant hunger (“Everything I did was hungry”) also rivalry and secretness.  On one occasion when Leo is permitted to go outside the camp to an adjacent town, he finds ten rubles, quickly spends it on real food (not cabbage and potatoes) and, then, almost immediately, because of the shock to his system, throws everything up.

Herta Müller’s fictive world is brutal and bleak, repressive, and largely without hope.  Like others who have written about such extreme situations, there’s a life-long period of adjustment for those who escape or—in Leo’s case—are sent back home after five years of forced labor.  So the journey depicted in The Hunger Angel is every bit as unsettling as Frank Money’s return to the South in Toni Morrison’s Home.  But what are we to expect when the world’s most esteemed novelists reflect on the lives and the situations of people they have observed?

Toni Morrison: Home

Knopf, 147 pp., $24


Herta Müller: The Hunger Angel

Translated by Philip Boehm

Metropolitan Books, 290 pp., $26

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C.  Email: clarson@american.edu.

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Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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