This is a more recent novel by Herta Mueller who won the Nobel Prize in 2009, soon after this novel came out. The epilogue and author’s note mentions that this began as a work in collaboration between Mueller and a poet whose experience overlap the subject of the poet’s experiences in a Soviet camp after the fall of Romanian in 1945. The novel circulates around the experiences of a young man from Romania who is captured and imprisoned by the new Soviet leadership when the Russian army takes over Romania near the end of WWII. While in the camp, the primary experience is boredom and hunger. The style of the novel is experiential in the sense of trying to capture the memories that define time before the camp, but still primarily the experiences of being in the camp itself. As you can imagine, it’s both harrowing, but also kind of mundane in a lot of ways, especially given that this camp, while it led to a lot of death, was not designed around death.
The title of the novel is a tough call, as explained in the translator’s note at the end. The title comes from the swirling image of a the image of the hunger itself as a kind of death-like being for the narrator. But the original German title “Atemschaukel” doesn’t have anything to do with hunger. Instead, it literally translates to something like “breath swing” but more than anything is a poetic construction of the poet, and so the weight of the metaphor is lost in translation. There’s also another line that often gets translated into a title, at least from some of the original poetic source material: “Everything I possess I carry with me”. This would be a great title too, but here we are.