As it was the case over last few years, this year too, the Nobel for Literature was a surprise selection. Over the regular names in discussion, a relatively lesser known writer ( in these parts of the world) was selected to be the recipient of the coveted award. Herta Muller, Romanian born German writer, "who, with the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed", said the committee , in its announcement.
There were no books available in India, until the last week of November. Having heard some rave review by people familiar with her writing, I was eager to get a copy for myself. I am not disappointed, but was not overwhelmed by this book.
Book talks about five youths under the Communist Regime of Ceausescu, living under constant fear. The narrator , an alter ego of the writer, looks at those days observing the oppressor and the sufferer through the same eyes. The policemen, the all enduring old people, holding on to their memories of glorious past ( of Hungary , Germany and else where) in an effort to remain sane, the collaborators, the mothers constantly complaining about their back pain, and communicating the real issues between the lines, the co-worker and friend who turns to be a traitor, the inspector and the dog with te same name, people waiting at the gate of the jail waiting for their beloved to return ( who is dead and buried long ago) etc to give us the gruesome picture of the society.
"When we don't speak, we become unbearable, and when we do, we make fools of ourselves" starts the book.
Lola, a village girl, studying translation in the university, who carries the peasant smell, was found dead , hanging in the toilet. Lola, was subjected to abuse by the men working in shift as well as the system. The party expels her posthumously, for bringing disrespect to the country and the party. Her dorm mate and fellow student ( the narrator ) gets on the wrong side of the regime. Along with her friends Edgar, Kurt, Georg she was tormented and was put under surveillance by the state, often interrogating them and accusing them being anti-social. They were sent to different parts of the country after their education on jobs, but soon find themselves loosing their job. While the interrogation and threat continued, the contemplate escape from the land.
"Because we were afraid, Edgar,Kurt,Georg, and I met every day. We sat together at a table, but our fear stayed locked within each of our heads. We laughed a lot, to hide it from each other. But fear always found an out. If you control you face, it slips into your voice. If you manage to keep a grip on your voice, it would slip through your fingers. It will pass through your skin and lie there. You can see it lying around on objects close by"
But for a society living under fear over the years, the emancipation is not immediate. The fear is so deep rooted, that even after successfully emigrating to the west, it remain with them..
"Edgar and I talked on the telephone, we didn't have enough money to visit each other. We didn't have enough voice for the telephone, either. We weren't in the habit of giving out our secrets over the phone, our tongues were tied by fear."
Interestingly, in her acceptance speech at the academy ( the famous hand kerchief speech), many instances from this book is talked. This book, thus could be the closest to her personally.
One morning I came to work and found my thick dictionaries lying on the floor of the hall outside my office. I opened the door; an engineer was sitting at my desk. He said: People are supposed to knock before they enter a room. This is my place, you have no business here"
My mother sat there locked up the whole day. The first hours she sat on his desk and cried. Then she paced up and down and began using the handkerchief that was wet with her tears to dust the furniture. After that she took the water bucket out of the corner and the towel off the hook on the wall and mopped the floor. I was horrified when she told me. How can you clean the office for him like that I asked. She said, without embarrassment: I was looking for some work to pass the time. And the office was so dirty. Good thing I took one of the large men's handkerchiefs with me.
One can not stop admiring the language and style. Many beautiful passages, often poetic. Short and simple writing. This is my first reading of Herta Muller and one can not judge the calibre of a writer from single book. Very good book, but not extra ordinary.
The Land of Green Plums
Herta Müller ( Translated from German by Michael Hoffmann )
Granta Books, London
Further read : Nobel Lecture , NY Times review