This novel of the Gulag was first published in Germany in 2009, the same year that its German-Romanian author won the Nobel Prize.
Müller was born in 1953 and raised in a German-speaking enclave of Romania. In 1945 the Red Army had deported thousands from these enclaves to forced labor camps on the Russian steppe. Years later, the recollections of one of the former deportees inspired her to write this novel. Her narrator, 17-year-old Leo Auberg, has just started having sex with men in the park, fearfully, risking jail; when the soldiers come calling, he’s glad to escape his watchful small town. That gladness disappears on the cattle cars. Dignity goes too, as the deportees are ordered off the train to do their business in a snowy field. What follows are dozens of short sections as Leo riffs on conditions in the camp. He will do different kinds of work: unloading coal, servicing the boilers, loading pitch in a trench. That last assignment is life-threatening, but before he succumbs to a fever Leo notes that “the air shimmered, like an organza cape made of glass dust.” The poetic sensibility sets the novel apart. There is a much-hated adjutant, a German like themselves, but it is hunger, death’s henchman, that is their greatest adversary. Leo fights it in practical ways: begging door to door, saving or trading his bread (echoes of Solzhenitsyn). But he also uses a kind of reverse psychology when he calls this devil hunger an angel. The inversion is crucial to Leo’s morale and survival. Keep the enemy off balance. Flatter him; be gallant. This may sound whimsical, but there is steel in the writing.
Müller’s work is not without flaws. Leo’s sexual orientation is not well integrated into the narrative; his post-camp experiences are too compressed. The novel is still a notable addition to labor camp literature.