On Herta Müller

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.

12 thoughts on “On Herta Müller

  1. Amazing essay, Litlove, very well worked out definition both of freedom and oppression. How odd to find similarities between the lacklustre and the blockbuster.

  2. Thanks for reading and reviewing Muller! I’ve been wondering about her ever since she won the Nobel. Sounds like her books aren’t fun though. Best maybe for a sunny day in summer rather than a gloomy day in winter? I’m intrigued by the book but I think I will have to put it onmy list of books I have to work myself up to read.

  3. This was such a thought-provoking post for me. It really reminds me that my opinions of books is so colored by my own Westernized way of thinking. It is hard to adequately assess a book like this unless I am willing to see beyond myself in some way. The way you peeled back the layers and discovered the ways that this book would naturally be very different from the “blockbusters” shows you are discerning reader. I love what you have written here and will use this post to inspire me when I know I am not being discerning enough in my reading or in my opinions.

  4. What a very enlightening and important post you have created here. One of the things often said in reviews of Western books that really kick their characters in the teeth is that somehow these novels remain hopeful, or if they don’t reviewers feel there’s no point to the novel because the characters are degraded for nothing. Of course around the world, every day people are beaten down for nothing and left with no options, but it takes a steady hand to depict that without flinching.

    I wonder if you compared authors who were born into a particular repressive culture, but now live in a free country and novels by authors who still live with that daily you would see a marked difference between their attiitudes. Is there an element of fantasy creation going on by those who escape to a different kind of life, are they merely reflecting thier own expereince, or are they incapable of acknowledging that for others hope is bleak?

  5. Lilian – I know what you mean – it doesn’t seem possible to exclude them, does it? But that’s very much what Muller does in this particular book. Maybe it’s different in others. Although I have seem similar sentiments come up in other reading, notably Assia Djebar who writes about women in Algerian under strict Islamic rule. Describing the harem back in the 19th century she would talk about women being buried alive and cut off from their subjectivity to such an extent that they could feel nothing. I do wonder whether we underestimate how much freedom alters our perspectives.

    Ingrid – I love your phrase there about the lacklustre and the blockbuster – that’s wonderful! And thank you for such a nice comment.

    Stefanie – I think I read elsewhere that Muller’s best novel is considered to be The Land of Green Plums, so it might be an idea to start there. This was intriguing, and I’m glad I read it. But yes, you do need something a little light and frothy afterwards!🙂

    Kathleen – thank you for another lovely comment! I’m very interested in the way writing from other cultures show us how deep the divisions run between different ways of thinking and living. It’s a cliche that you only see your own land through the eyes of strangers, but it has a lot of power. This was definitely one of those books that I had to get a very different angle on, if I wanted to hear what it was telling me.

  6. Jodie – our comments came in at the same time, I think! That’s such a very insightful question you ask there, and I’m not on sure enough ground to provide a proper answer. I think (and I ought to have checked) but I’m pretty sure that Muller used to be in the same position as her characters, but now lives in a free state (I think she lives in Germany). Apparently she writes a lot about exile, too, and so I imagine she must be strung between the memory of a homeland, where nothing was right, and the experience of an adopted land where life is good but it isn’t home. It may be that her sense of fervour increases because she is away from that repressive state, the longing to tell others how bad it is so they pay attention may be heightened. That’s a really interesting thought, and one I’ll consider when reading books by other authors in similar situations. And thank you for your kind words! I do appreciate them no end!

  7. Your post is written very lovely, and eloquent enough for me to know this book is not for me. Do you know anything about the author’s life?

  8. Grad – sometimes I read ’em so you don’t have to.😉 Not every book is for every reader, after all. I don’t know so very much about Muller’s life, except (having looked up on wikipedia after Jodie’s question) that she lived in the German speaking regions of Romania and came from a family that was wealthy until the Communists took all their money away. It sounds like her parents were mistreated under the regime, and that Muller herself grew up a bit of a rebel, losing jobs because she refused to cooperate with the secret police. I think she taught for a while, and then at some point must have moved over into writing. And I think that now she lives in West Berlin, after a fight of her own to get out of Romania. A courageous and impressive woman, then, by anyone’s standards.

  9. Oh, interesting! I’m very glad to know a little about her so I won’t pick up a book of hers completely unprepared. I’ll admit I have newly mixed feelings about reading such dark, difficult books. I’ve been the type to be willing to read them no matter how gloomy they were, but in recent years, I’m less willing to subject myself to them. I’m not sure that’s a good thing, really.

  10. I’ve just gone back to review her list of novels – what made me think I’d recognize the title(s) of what I read in high school? Several resonate. But I remember how much I loved the books; I had the paperbacks. Where are they now? I don’t know, but you’ve stirred something up here! I love reading about writers and will pursue this one as well as go on a hunt for whatever one(s) I read in my pink room in the house I grew up in in New York. (sigh) If only they didn’t change the covers, I just might recoginze the titles I read…ok, probably not. This will be a merry search, though, and some entertaining reading!

  11. Pingback: The missing link between magic realism and trashy literature | Jonathan's Secret City

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