After reading and writing about Herta Müller’s 1997 novel The Appointment, I immediately picked up two more of her books, The Passport and The Land of Green Plums. First published in German in 1986, The Passport was translated into English in 1989, a full twenty years before she was awarded the 2009 Novel Prize for Literature.
The Romanian village where Windisch and his wife live exists in a pre-information age isolation that envelops its inhabitants in a reassuring fog of superstition, tradition, and ignorance. On the surface lies a veneer of beliefs and tall tales that lends the villagers the quaint aura of magic realism – like the widely held belief that the apple tree in front of the church eats its own fruit at night. But the flip side of this is a perpetual undertow of violence, nearly all of which is directed at women and children, including child abuse, rape, and incest. Müller writes in simple declarative sentences that equalize everything, giving every statement the same weight. Although it’s not quite true, it feels as if Müller abolished the word “and” in this book. Her brief staccato sentences come at the reader in a kind of jerky, not-quite linear sequence, like an oddly edited piece of film.
The cupboard is a white rectangle, the beds are white frames. The walls in between are black patches. The floor slopes. The floor rises. It rises high against the wall. And stops at the door. The skinner is counting the second bundle of money. The floor will cover him. The skinner’s wife blows the dust from the grey fur cap. The floor will lift her to the ceiling. By the tiled stove, the clock has struck a long white patch against the wall. Windisch closes his eyes. “Time is at an end,” he thinks. He hears the white patch of the clock on the wall ticking and sees a clock-face of black spots. Time has no clock hand. Only the black spots are turning. They crowd together. They push themselves out of the white patch. Fall along the floor. They are the floor. The black spots are the floor in the other room.
The ultimate dream for many of the residents of the village is a passport and a ticket out of Romania. For these residents, Germany and the other destination countries beyond the border seem to exist as an unexamined fantasy that remains untarnished even when they hear from others who have left that the outside world is expensive and harsh. Nicolae Ceaușescu’s intolerable regime, so dominant in the urban story of The Appointment, is only beginning to trickle down to Windisch’s rural village in the form of occasional government officials who show up in a “white, closed car” to impose new regulations or confiscate the property of the locals, before driving back to the big city. But to obtain a passport and effect an escape, one must curry favor with local bigwigs, submit to endless demands for bribes, and keep one’s nose clean. In the case of poor Windisch and his wife, the price is their daughter, Amalie, who they must send to sleep with the local priest so that he will produce their baptismal certificates, which is required for their passports.
Windisch’s wife hangs a red dress across the back of the chair. She places a pair of white sandals with high heels and narrow straps under the chair. Amalie opens her handbag. She dabs on eye shadow with her fingertip. “Not too much,” says Windisch’s wife, “otherwise people will talk.” Her ear is in the mirror. It is large and grey. Amalie’s eyelids are pale blue. Amalie’s mascara is made of soot. Amalie pushes her face very close to the mirror. Her upward glance is made of glass.
A strip of tinfoil falls out of Amalie’s handbag onto the carpet. It is full of round white warts. “What’s that you’ve got?” asks Windisch’s wife. Amalie bends down and puts the strip back in her bag. “The pill,” she says. She twists the lipstick out of its black holder.
Windisch’s wife puts her cheekbone in the mirror. “What do you need pills for?” she asks. “You’re not sick.”
The narrator of The Appointment was obsessed with numbers and compulsively counted things as a way of futilely trying to control the world. In The Passport, Müller uses colors to much the same effect.
The cupboard is a white rectangle, the beds are white frames. The walls in between are black patches. The floor slopes. The floor rises. It rises high against the wall. And stops at the door. The skinner is counting the second bundle of money. The floor will cover him. The skinner’s wife blows the dust from the grey fur cap. The floor will lift her to the ceiling. By the tiled stove, the clock has struck a long white patch against the wall.
Herta Müller, The Passport. Translated from the German by Martin Chalmers. London: Serpent’s Tail.