Herta Müller: a minimal interrogation

Filled with stark vignettes of oppression and paranoia, The Appointment replicates the torpor of a life lived under totalitarian control.

To read the work of the Romanian novelist Herta Müller is to feel, instantly, that the lights of one's everyday world have been switched off, and that one is in a place of danger, of an amorphous dread. Müller's protagonists, powerless but mildly peeved individuals living under the yoke of a tyrannical regime, are the agents of this immersion into paranoia. Perennially watched, or suspecting they are being watched (for even the most innocent bystanders "might be doing a little spying on the side"), they are themselves ever-watchful, living, even at their most secure, in "a tousled state of fear".

The most common kinds of social interaction in Müller's world are interrogation, observation, or conspiracy - power and the attempt to subvert power. Material life is abject, private life narrowed down to a set of desultory gestures, and small spurts of emotion or sensory stimulation take on a heightened significance in these novels, which enact, through the very texture of their bleak and enigmatic sentences, the debilitation of human personality in a world in which every person feels himself incarcerated, choiceless. "What am I taking away from this country by going to another," the narrator asks her interrogator in Müller's novel The Appointment. The answer, of course, is "yourself", for without subjects there can be no dictatorship.

The Appointment opens, familiarly, with a scene of coercion. "I was summoned," begins the narrator, a young factory worker whose name we never get to know. Desperate to leave the country, she has been caught sewing notes into the linings of men's suits bound for Italy, entreating the buyer to marry her. This real "crime" has become, in turn, the foundation for fictive ones. The narrator's supervisor, an older man called Nelu who is upset with her for spurning his advances, has concocted some new notes on the same lines as her own, signed off with a spiteful touch - "Best wishes from the dictatorship" - and passed these over to the authorities. State power and sexual resentment spin a web around the protagonist, and she and her boyfriend are now enmired. Her summoning engulfs her totally, and is thus aptly her introduction. As we see her taking a tram on her way to her menacing appointment, she tells us that she is expecting the worst, that "today I'm carrying a small towel, a toothbrush, and some toothpaste in my handbag."

Like The Land of Green Plums, perhaps Müller's best-known novel in English translation, The Appointment proffers a series of plangent, elliptical vignettes of life under the regime of Nicolae Ceausescu, Romania's dictator between the years 1974 and 1989. In these novels Ceausescu is never mentioned by name; rather, his reign is treated almost as a fact of life, like the coming and going of the seasons or the onset of old age and decrepitude.

Unlike many of the novels in the 20th century's vast library of totalitarian literature, Müller's books do not offer us a redemptive map (like the Russians Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Vasily Grossman) of the struggle to keep hope and humanity alive under conditions of the worst physical or psychological oppression, or else concoct a kind of grotesque comedy from the contradictions that they find before them (like, say, the Chinese novelists Mo Yan and Ma Jian). Their words and situations replicate, rather than contest with a vivid rhetoric of their own, the banality and the stupor of a life lived to the tune of empty slogans (in Green Plums workers' choruses play all day long from loudspeakers attached to the walls of student dormitories) and reflexive persecution.

A network of causes and effects is not drawn out; the stoical protagonists just accept that the air is bad, and try to keep going a life that, in the words of one character, is "just the farty splutter of a lantern, not even worth the bother of putting your shoes on". These are books that, in effect, make the same demands of their readers as the life that they depict makes of their protagonists, with gradually accumulating tensions suddenly being muffled by anti-climax. Like JMG Le Clezio, the French-Mauritian novelist who won the Nobel Prize the year before her in 2008, Müller is one of those independent-minded writers who don't so much reach out to the reader as ask to be reached.

The Appointment is stretched out upon a frame of double time: the present moment, in which we see the protagonist taking the tram to her interrogation early one morning, watching the people around her and making guesses about their lives with a practised eye, and, balanced against this, the swoops and circles of memory as she lives what may be her last hours of freedom. She remembers her father, a bus driver whose affair with a vegetable seller is part of a recurring pattern in the book in which older men prey on young women; her friend Lilli, who was shot dead on the border while trying to flee with her lover, a retired army officer; her ex-husband, who nearly threw her off a bridge when he found out she wanted to leave him; and her lover Paul, whom she first met at the flea market while trying to sell her wedding ring.

In one of the novel's best moments, the narrator tries to imagine what might have gone through the mind of the young border guard whose bullet took the life of her best friend. "When he fired, he was just a man on duty, a miserable sentry under a vast heaven where the wind whistled loneliness day and night," she thinks. "Lilli's living flesh gave him shivers, and her death was heaven-sent, an unexpected gift of ten days' leave… Perhaps a woman like me was waiting, someone who, although she couldn't measure up to the dead woman, could nonetheless laugh and caress her man in the grip of love until he felt like a human being." By extinguishing the life of a human being then, the guard, under the incentive scheme of a perverted order, has his own prospects for humanity returned to him.

Müller documents the slow descent of her protagonist into paranoia ("I've been listening to the alarm clock since three in the morning ticking ten sharp, ten sharp, ten sharp"), and the small obsessive gestures and dependencies of someone in trouble ("Once the nut's been cracked, it loses its power if it opens overnight.") Sometimes, it must be said, this kind of work risks shrinking into mannerism. Her narrator spends almost unreasonable amounts of time thinking about things like the precise colour of apples or leaves or the surfaces of windows - this is a world in which the life of objects almost equals that of human beings (a theme amplified in Müller's Nobel lecture, appended here to the text of the novel, in which a handkerchief laid out upon a staircase becomes Müller's office after she is thrown out of her workplace). Indeed, at one point the protagonist finds, wrapped in a piece of paper inside her handbag, "a finger with a bluish-black nail", and cannot figure out whether this object, in its own grisly afterlife, connects to life or to death - "whether the whole person was dead, or just his finger". It is this strange mingling of the quotidian and the macabre that one remembers when one puts down the work of this difficult but distinctive writer.

 

Chandrahas Choudhury's novel Arzee the Dwarf was recently selected by World Literature Today as one of 60 essential English-language works of modern Indian literature.

Published: January 7, 2011 04:00 AM

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