…Paul and I talked and talked till the sun was at high noon. I was amazed at all the mothers and fathers we had to bring in just to explain where we were each coming from on our way to meeting the other. Handkerchiefs, strollers, baby carriages, peach trees, cuff links, ants – even dust and wind carried weight. It’s easy to talk about bad years if they are past. But when you have to say who you are right at this very moment, it’s hard to get more out than an uneasy silence.
Tender and frightening at the same time, Herta Müller’s The Appointment is an intimate novel about life under a regime much like that of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s Romania and the violence that such regimes do to the human spirit. The narrator has been called for yet another appointment with her interrogator at the offices of the secret police and as she makes her way across the city by bus her thoughts traverse the landscape of her life – her husbands (one has committed suicide), her family, her girl friends, her secrets, her interrogator. Her appointments with the secret police are frightening mind games, but they are predictable in their own cruel way. Daily life, however, is dangerous and unpredictable. The regime uses poverty and pervasive suspicion to induce the populace to do much of their dirty work for them. Every interaction throughout the day becomes a power transaction with a winner and a loser. Every relationship is tested and perverted – especially, it seems, those among family. As the narrator says in the book’s final sentence, “The trick is to not go mad.”
But there are moments when something like madness provides the narrator with a moment of quiet escape, of grace. Most of the time the narrator is obsessively observant, even to the point of counting seemingly innocuous things. It’s a compulsion that serves multiple functions: keeping track of things, passing the time, grasping for a hard and fixed calculus in a world where nothing it as it seems. On occasions, however, the narrator’s mind becomes slightly untethered and flits from one thing to another to another. It’s partly a defensive move, as if it were uncomfortable or dangerous to stay on one thought too long. But this retreat into the imagination is also a critical respite, a moment of dignity, a mental leap into momentary freedom. Here’s just one example:
On my way to the tram stop, I again pass the shrubs with the white berries dangling through the fences. Like buttons made of mother-of-pearl and sewn from underneath, or stitched right down into the earth, or else like bread pellets. They remind me of a flock of little white-tufted birds turning away their beaks, but they’re really too small for birds. It’s enough to make you giddy. I’d rather think of snow sprinkled on the grass, but that leaves you feeling lost, and the thought of chalk makes you sleepy.
“And the thought of chalk makes you sleepy.” And where, precisely, does that come from? The brutal logic of regimes seems to manifest itself in an extreme illogic. The narrator’s instinctively brilliant solution is to counter institutionalized illogic with with a liberating, poetic illogic. The Appointment is a wise and painfully beautiful book about one woman’s attempt to survive the absurdly cruel world of totalitarian society.
Since then I’ve used the notebook to record whatever Albu [her interrogator] says to me while kissing my hand, or how many paving stones, fence slats, telegraph poles, or windows there are between one spot and another. I don’t like writing, because something that’s written down can be discovered, but I have to do it. Often the same things, in the same place, change their number from one day to the next. At first glance everything looks exactly the same, but not when you count it.