Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Book Note: Herta Muller's The Appointment

Book Note: Herta Müller’s The Appointment

Herta Müller (Wiki Commons)
Herta Müller is a Romanian writer, born in 1953, who since 1987 has lived in Germany. In 2009 she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. At the time, I read news articles hinting that she did not deserve the prize and that her writing was inaccessible. So when I picked up one of her novels at a sale, I put off reading it for a long time. The novel is The Appointment (Henry Holt, 2001).

I was wrong to put off reading this book for so long: it is beautifully written and translated.  Müller is very sensitive to the physical environment and as I read the novel, I could feel the heaviness of the air before the rain and see the colours of evening skies. I could also imagine the poverty-stricken living conditions of Romania, the cramped apartments and the booze-soaked men. Romanians under the dictator Ceauşescu lived quiet lives of desperation (a phrase I’ve just discovered was coined by Henry David Thoreau).

This book is in the tradition of Kafka’s The Trial and Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. The protagonist is riding the bus to an appointment with her interrogator. Along the ways she muses about her life and about the fellow passengers on the bus, the old man in a straw hat, the man with the briefcase, the elderly woman going to market, the father with a crying baby. The driver doesn’t care about the schedule and gets off the bus whenever he feels like it, so she worries about being late as she watches him munch his rolls.

Unlike Kafka’s protagonist, Müller’s protagonist knows why she is being interrogated. I am not giving the plot away to reveal that she works in a clothing factory exporting goods to Italy. In desperation she put a note in a few pairs of trousers asking anyone who read it to marry her, and including her name and address. She is now being interrogated for betraying the socialist fatherland and for being a slut who would go with any Italian man who wanted her. She seems resigned to her fate but she is very afraid of the consequences of being late for the appointment with her interrogator, whose tactics include sleazy charm as well as threats.
Nicolae Ceauşescu in 1981 (Wiki Commons)

As she muses about her life while riding the bus, we learn obliquely about her relationship with her previous and present husbands, with her beautiful friend who has affairs with much older men, and about others in her life. We also learn about her grandfather who was deported to “the camp,” where her grandmother died. At first I thought Müller meant the Nazi concentration camps set up for Jews, but then I realized she meant the camps to which so-called enemies of socialism were deported. And we learn about her former father-in-law, a jumped up nobody who joined the Communist Party, started wearing perfume and riding a white horse, and picked out people he didn’t like for deportation to the camps.
Sighet Prison Memorial Museum,
interior with cell doors and
portraits of former inmates (Wiki Commons) 
In this novel—and probably in the actual Romania of the time-- nobody cares about anyone. The protagonist’s husband’s colleagues at work steal his clothes and laugh at him when he has to go home half-naked. The entire country is “decivilized” (a word I learned from a Russian academic when on an academic exchange trip to the Soviet Union in 1990).

Müller ends her novel with the sentence, “The trick is not to go mad.”  And indeed, The Appointment draws us into a world of madness, just as did Kafka (presciently, before European communism) and Koestler. I recommend this novel, and I’m going to read a lot more of Müller myself.

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