Herta Müller won the Nobel prize in 2009 with her writings mostly set in Romania under the repressive regime of Nicolae Ceauşescu, and one of them is The Passport, a slim volume described as ‘a beautiful, haunting novel’ on the back cover. Whilst The Passport certainly haunts in the way a surreal and somewhat lurid nightmare can, I can’t quite reconcile myself to the term ‘beautiful’. Disturbing, harsh, excessive and brutal, yes, all those things, but it didn’t strike me as a work of beauty, unless we’re following the Greeks in the belief that beauty is terror. I found it a difficult read; in fact, I almost caved in and went to the library in search of secondary criticism about Müller’s works. But I’ve never done that for a blog review yet, and instead, I started to think about this book in relation to the blockbusters I’ve been reading, and that helped me to find a way in. For whilst it is true that this is no easy read, it’s the kind of book that I feel that I ought to pay attention to, the kind of book that seeks to depict an experience so beyond the boundaries of my own comfortable existence that I have an ethical duty to listen to what it wants to say.
Such as it is, the story concerns Windisch the village miller, who has applied for permission to migrate to West Germany from the German village in Romania where he currently lives. He’s been trying to bribe the officials with bags of flour, but as the intolerable nature of his current existence weighs ever more heavily on him, he decides to bargain with his daughter instead. Not that this is obvious to the reader for at least the first half of the novel. Instead of an unfolding plot, we get tangentially related brief chapters, fragments almost, as many have an unfinished, ragged feel. These are mostly snapshots of Windisch going about his usual business and crossing other members of his community in the process, all of whom are dispossessed, alienated, competitive about petty concerns. At the heart of Windisch’s woes is his miserable marriage, in which he is bound to his wife only by a kind of tenacious, bitter dislike. Müller’s prose to describe these scenes is what is commonly called ‘sparse’, and which translated into layman’s terms means ‘not quite enough words to give the reader a decent impression of what’s actually happening’. But occasionally she will break out of her limping lyricism into a moment of magic realism, with (for example) a story that sounds like village legend about an apple tree that grew a mouth and was hacked to pieces by the locals, fearing some sort of demonic possession.
So this is not a charming book, nor a particularly seductive one. It is puzzling and rebarbative, but once you get into its mindset, then it can have a curious grip on the imagination. What’s difficult about this book (and maybe Müller’s work in general, I haven’t read any more of it so can’t say for sure) is that it inhabits a kind of parallel universe to the one we recognize as reality, and this is something that you often find occurring when writers write from a marginalized and oppressed position. It’s life, my friend, but not as we know it, and that can make us turn off, just at the point where we might be most intrigued by the novel.
As I began to compare Müller’s work to the blockbusters I’d been reading, then some unexpected similarities began to arise. Both are concerned with placing their characters in the very worst of bad situations, and this repeatedly and continually. Both have a lot of fairly unredeemable sex and violence, used to indicate a kind of primal concern with survival in a harsh world. And both are completely dependent on fantasies to power the narrative along. But let’s stop and have a look at that interest in fantasy more closely; if we note the differences in the fantasies concerned, it becomes very telling. As a reader, I have as much chance of becoming a billionaire (Sidney Sheldon) or a Hollywood superstar (Jacqueline Susann), as I do of coming across a tree with a mouth that eats things (Müller). It’s only that, as a product of a free society, I believe the possibility of fame and fortune is still held out to me, even if the likelihood is low. For Müller’s characters, living under a harsh dictatorship, those kinds of fantasies have absolutely no meaning whatsoever. No, better to fall back on myth and folklore, on the superstitious belief that a particular owl landing on the roof of a house will mean imminent death for its inhabitant. That sort of magical thinking has more potency than any kind of taunting fantasy about great wealth.
And so it goes with the other similarities, too. Sex and violence structure the blockbuster as a way to indicate the mastery and dominance of the characters – but what would those words mean to someone who has never known autonomy, or had it unconditionally taken away? Sex and violence lose the positive meaning we invest in them and become instead just plain brutal and mean, the vicious excesses of frustration and unwilling servitude. There is no love in The Passport, because love means hope, optimism and trust, qualities missing in life under a dictatorship. If the blockbuster puts its protagonists in awful situations, it’s because it is essentially full of trust and optimism that those protagonists will eventually emerge unscathed, and indeed victorious.
So, it’s no surprise that The Passport is a tough book to read. It doesn’t follow the most basic rules of plot and narrative in the free, Western world, its ideological background is radically different, even the texture of the writing is altered – not smooth, coherent, evocative, as we expect it to be, but choppy, discordant, almost poetic, but not poetic enough. Nothing much happens because, well, what feasibly could happen to these poor imprisoned folk? The basic principle of narrative as we understand it is freedom – anything might happen, and the reader is always free to hope that endings will be happy ones. The basic principles of Müller’s novel are oppression and hopelessness, and they affect every part of the story; everything crumbles and buckles and exhausts itself as if under the influence of a great pressure. And that’s why I object to the adjective ‘beautiful’ being applied to this story. It isn’t beautiful – it’s ugliness written with an edge of failed lyricism, and that’s completely appropriate to the situation Müller sets out to describe. If we call it beautiful, then we seek to idealise poverty and coercion. But could we – would we – in the free, hopeful world, pick up a book that advertised itself as ugly and without redemption? The Passport is not an ‘entertainment’, and I admit I found it hard to read, but I can still see nevertheless why Müller was awarded the Nobel prize for her work.