22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on December 9, 2009
... hundreds of small watercolors by the German Expressionist Emil Nolde, fill a small museum of their own in Berlin, near the Gendarmes' Market in the former East sector. Nolde was himself an anti-Semite and Nazi supporter in the 1920s, but because his paintings were classed by Hitler as "decadent art', he was ordered to refrain from painting of any sort during the years of World War 2. He disobeyed, hiding his watercolors successfully until the end of the war, painting daily in his remote home on the seacoast. Nolde's vision was a dark, tormented one, based on Germanic lore and the gloomy countryside he loved to roam. Whatever his politics, he was a great expressive painter.
The fragmented prose-poem chapters of Herta Müller's novella "Der Mensch ist ein grosser Fasan auf der Welt" (A Man is Just a Pheasant in the World, feebly re-titled 'The Passport' in English) remind me very strongly of Nolde's "Unpainted Pictures", or of any of the garishly colored, angular paintings of the "Brücke" school, by Erich Heckel, Max Pechstein, Ernst Kirchner, or Otto Müller. Herta Müller, born in the German-speaking Banat Province of Romania, was unquestionably not related to the painter Otto, but her narrative structures in this book are vividly pictorial, with eye-popping colors splashed on every page, white and primary red especially, and with descriptions of setting framing every occurrence. The dialogue in this book is as jagged and irrational as any Expressionist depiction of nudes in a studio or drinkers in a bar. There's something coarse and brutal about nearly every character in The Passport, as there is in the Berlin Street-Scenes painted by Ernst Kirchner or Max Beckmann. A smile in such a portrait automatically becomes a leer. Stated briefly, this short book is a beautifully-written portrayal of ugliness. And like an Expressionist painting, it can only be grasped emotionally, not rationally.
Windisch, the village miller, desperately wants 'papers' that will allow him to emigrate with his wife and grown-up daughter. Since he is an ethnic German, the Romanians want nothing better than to get rid of him and his ilk, but nothing can be done so reasonably in Ceausescu's police state. Every scrap of real of symbolic worth has to be extorted first, every degradation inflicted. Any would-be emigrant's wife has to 'search' for his birth certificate in the village priest's iron bed, and for his passport under the sheets of the militiaman's cot. Windisch is stubborn about his daughter's honor...
Yes, there is a story told in the ninety pages of this novella, but it takes an intuitive reader to unravel it. Müller's style here is far more allusive, symbolic, obscure than in the longer novel, "The Appointment", which I reviewed last week. I wouldn't rush to recommend The Passport as a first exposure to the 2009 Nobel Prize winner's work. Nevertheless, it's a masterpiece of the evocation of psychological anguish through mere words on a page.
The German title, by the way, is never explicated in English. It's a phrase spoken in disgust by a secondary character in the first chapter and repeated once by Windisch in despair in a chapter near the end. Is it a folk-saying of Romanian Germans? Possibly, but I take it as purely non-linear expressionism. Much of the novella has to be taken like that.
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on December 15, 2009
The first thing that struck me about Herta Muller's 1986 work The Passport was to wonder how good the translation would be considering the actual German title (Man is a Great Pheasant in the World) was ignored for a much simpler, but weaker title. I hoped it was just done for the usual American marketing purposes (simpler is better, don't use metaphor when you can use a concrete noun) and plugged ahead, but wondered throughout the book.
`The Pheasant' is essentially a prose poem, with staccato narrative, both in sentence structure as well as chapter organization. Another reviewer has compared it to expressionist painting, and I would agree. I found reading it very irritating at first, but eventually eased into it. Paradoxically, the simpler the prose here the harder it is to grasp at first. Like a poem, the words must be reflected upon, and often re-read, to gather the intent. The short chapters helped me along with that. They worked like film exposures into the lives of these characters, and had a cumulative effect until at the end I loved the book.
The story itself is bleak. It's set in a small village in Ceausescu-era Romania. The protagonist is Windisch, the village miller, who is trying to get passports to take his family to West Germany. He's bringing free flour to the town's mayor, who keeps promising him a passport in return, but it never materializes. As Muller shows us in sometimes surreal glimpses into the town's history and present, we learn how trapped these people are and what it will really take for Windisch to get the passports. We learn of a place where honor and dignity took a back-seat to freedom and the necessity to escape.
This is the first Muller book I've read and I will definitely be checking out others.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on January 18, 2010
The grey, oppressive life of a rural village in Romania, populated by the German-speaking minority, during the Ceausescu regime. The protagonist is Windisch, the village miller, a middle aged man who lives with his wife and a teenage daughter, and wants to leave Romania for Germany. In order to do that, he needs a passport, and in order to get one he needs to bribe various officials, including the mayor of the small town. Written in 1986 by last year's winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, the German-speaking Romanian-born novelist Herta Muller, it is structured in small chapters, in which not very much happens, just the petty jealousies among the various characters (there is not a single person in the book that is really likable). While the prose is not difficult, the oppressiveness, small-mindedness and dullness of the situations requires a patient reader, but it is a rewarding book (and is not very long).
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
During the brutal reign of Ceausescu, Windisch wants out of his German village in Romania. In fact he wants out of the country that feels everywhere in his mind as the end instead of a beginning or even a middle. The coffin with the Widow Kroner's name on it symbolizes how he feels as the box remains empty waiting for her to die. Last year to gain a passport to go to West Berlin, he tried bribing the mayor with sacks of flour, but that only left him hungry. The village miller has tried using his daughter and his bitter wife, but so far has been rejected for the passport he needs to go to the west. Amalie with her crystal vase and Katharina who survived five Russian winters by selling her coat and more to make grass soup struggle in the village where women survive by sexual favors to the male elite.
This is a translation of a 1980s indictment of Ceausescu and the Communists who destroyed Romania economically and morally. To survive under the reign even in a tiny remote village, one had to bribe the leaders with whatever one had to include a pretty daughter. The cast makes the tale work while the stark grim brusque writing will stun the audience with its deep message that tyranny at any level destroys.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
Here is another Muller book on the quotidian brutality of life under the Ceacescu regime. It is the prominent theme of her overall ouevre, and here is explored in as great of detail as any of her other books. The plot, like the book itself, is thin; Windisch seeks to exit his tiny Romanian village and has to go through the corrupt government to secure a passport, at great risk and cost, to do so. The plot isn't half as interesting as the way Muller chooses to tell the story. The book is presented in a series of tiny vignettes that each in their own way shed some light on how people lived, thought, rationalized and reacted in such a dehumanizing world. Some further the plot, some reveal character, and some are presented as-is in order to make the story seem as everyday and true to life as possible. It is a fine and necessary book, and subtly educates the reader about a period of time not as covered as it should be. It is still a chore to wade through, however, and this could be due to Muller's writing abilities or a shoddy translation which created some chunky prose. This isn't a pretty read, but anyone interested in Muller's work after her sudden post-Nobel fame would benefit by experiencing it.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
That is the title of Herta Müller's 1986 novella in German, the language in which it was written. Whatever possessed those behind the publication of this English translation to change the title to THE PASSPORT? I suppose those boors would want to publish "À la recherche du temps perdu" with a title like "The Aesthete".
Early in the novella, the protagonist Windisch is in the midst of stealing another two sacks of flour to bribe the mayor so that Windisch might eventually receive the passport necessary to escape the grim and stultified Romania of Nicolae Ceausescu. The indifferent night watchman, who does not share Windisch's dream of escape, phlegmatically observes, "A man is nothing but a pheasant in the world." Windisch, still harboring some hope, replies "A man is strong, stronger than the beasts."
Months and countless sacks of flour later, the mayor still has not come through with the passport and Windisch is even more beaten down by his life in Romania. The price for getting passports for himself, his wife, and his daughter now apparently includes letting his daughter submit herself to the local priest and militiaman for their sexual predations. Windisch has become thoroughly disabused of the notion that a man is strong, stronger than the beasts. Instead,
"Windisch puts his elbows on the table. His hands are heavy. Windisch puts his face in his heavy hands. * * * Windisch feels the blow. A stone hangs in his ribs. * * * With naked eyes and with the stone in his ribs, Windisch says loudly: `A man is nothing but a pheasant in the world.'"
That excerpt is typical of the prose throughout THE PASSPORT: the sentences are but shards, sharp and stark and severe. They certainly fit the bleak world of 1980's Romania. In many places, the narrative takes surreal turns, so that the novella seemingly consists of one Dali painting after another. At first, I was annoyed with the weird scenes; they bordered on the pretentious. But they never take over the story, and with just a little effort I could follow the narrative in its more realistic mode. By the end, I was able to accept the bizarre and surreal as emblematic of the large dose of unreality and disconnectedness of life in Ceausescu's Romania.
THE PASSPORT is not great literature, but it is literature nonetheless. Written relatively early in Muller's career, it evinces promise of greater works, perhaps even a body of work worthy of a Nobel Prize. She of course received the Nobel, and, based on THE PASSPORT, I look forward to exploring her later work and learning why. Four-and-a-half stars, rounded up.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on September 10, 2010
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
When I started reading one short, declarative sentence after another, I was a bit put off, but as I allowed the poetic rhythm of the book to pull me in, I was fully engaged. Written from a grim place, where society has been taken to its lowest level, we see how people who've faced war, starvation, and rape react. It isn't pretty, but it's real.
Sometimes the surrealist images have to be taken for what they are without being analyzed. Once the reader slips into the village, watches the owl circle, knows the dilemmas Windisch and his wife and daughter have faced, one starts to get an idea of what it is like to live in this stark world where choices don't exist.
It's hard for Americans to take it in, difficult to image a man sending his daughter off to give herself to the town officials (including a priest) of the village so the family can have passports, but the bare bones struggle reeks of truth.
The book is sparse, fitting of a tale told of a place and time where daily existence was a challenge and no easy paths existed. Profound. Read it several times. It's poetry.
Written by Lois Requist, author of "RVing Solo Across America . . . without a cat, dog,man, or gun."
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on June 25, 2010
The Passport is a novella consisting of only 93 pages with the primary focus being on the Banat region of Romania and the Swabians in particular, the German speaking minority residents who occupy that territory in Romania. They are a people like the Armenians, who suffer incessantly and are folks who always get the raw end of the deal, historically speaking and otherwise. The story revolves around Windisch, the village miller, his wife as well as his virginal daughter Amalie, a school teacher. Surrounding them in their provincial Romanian village is an assortment of rough-edged characters who clasp onto superstition and mutual economic day-to day needs; their common bond is also their suffering as well as their increasing deprivations to a productive livelihood. Being enticed away from their homeland by the progress of the West (Germany, that is), Windish has hopes of securing passports for him and his family. But to obtain them, he offers bribes of flour to those men on the upper tiers of the political spectrum. In the eyes of those in power, it is a laughable gift offering as well as a disrespectful insult for the offices they hold. They are crude and crass in their desires and yearn for something a lot more sacred and personal. It is that desire that turns The Passport from literature to literary horror story. There are a lot of approaches that one can have towards despondency, and as a reader, you're always hoping fro the character to take the right approach or maybe not depending on your own personal circumstances, for literature is often validating for people. In his case, where flour offerings are not sufficient to buy his and his family's freedom, Windish is the lone wolf where his daughter's free will is concerned; she must hawk herself like a piece of used wares, for only that is a suitable offering. She submits and does so with free abandon, weaving her web that entangles not only the village priest but also a militiaman, among others. It becomes a manifestation of the past merging with the present and thus creating an all-too horrific reality. The quenching of lust by its own right is a kind of uninhibited breakaway from the repressive police state that they're all living in. In a way, it is like an explosion of lustful individuality that cannot be contained or ruled over by socialist and totalitarian decrees. Sex becomes the act of liberty and is a personal weapon of dominance. Because Amelia allows herself to become a sexual chattel for a greater good, she still has to reduce herself to gutter trash, and many others follow suit. Her own mother is a historical example. Amelia is in an appalling entanglement, though she may not see it. But her father does. In times of utter desperation, it is amazing the actions that people will follow through on. For Windish and his family, their country is evolving into a living hell and the once good people in their lives are changing into minions of that hell, not to be too hyperbolic. Perhaps Amelia's and Windish's questionable deeds are the lesser of the two evils, but that is for the reader to decide. It is either this action or one like this taught in the Romanian school system: "Comrade Nicolae Ceausescu is the father of our country. And just as the mother in the house in which we live is our mother, so Comrade Elena Ceausescu is the mother of our country. Comrade Nicolae Ceausescu is the father of all children. And Comrade Elena Ceausescu is the mother of all the children. All the children love comrade Nicolae and comrade Elena, because they are their parents." Page 51. The laws the two of them put forth were anything but loving! Page 74 titled "Grass Soup" was really compelling, for it is almost a warped play on Goldilocks and the Three Bears but for survival mode. The Passport was a gut-wrenching read that evoked in clear and sparse language mental torture and desperation unseen and experienced in anything I've ever witnessed. It is a difficult read, one that requires rereading in order to fully flesh out all the nuances of what Muller is trying to convey. I think I only got the gist, if even that. It was a disturbingly good read that recalls writers like Franz Kafka, H.P. Lovecraft and Gabriel Garcia Marques (my opinion).
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on May 27, 2010
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
I had a difficult time wrapping my arms around this bleak narrative and mystifying (haunting) prose.
Perhaps because it was sandwiched between reading Nabokov's Lolita and McEwan's Black Dogs, the writing style did not engage me as I thought it would... given my love of prosaic writing.
I found it difficult to follow the staccato style embedded in the cold and grim landscape.
I got lost in the bleakness and oppression and was unable to soar with the promised prose.
Another reviewer here that said in part that reading this novel was like looking at a Salvador Dali painting while watching a film noir at the same time.... and I could certainly associate with that! ....It really needed the reader's full attention and I just couldn't provide that.
The purported poetry in this book is very bleak and tersely woven with menacing metaphors ...not anything to woo a reader... IMO.
I enjoy poetry, I write and read poetry with some degree of understanding and I did not find Müller's use of poetic prose inviting or easily accessible.
The book is written in clipped short sentences and reads at times like a Dick and Jane book.... For example... "There were grey cracks between the blinds. Amalie had a temperature. Windisch couldn't sleep. He was thinking about her chewed nipples."
Müller's sentences are gloomy and darkly disburbing... she paints a joyless existence of mired mournful movement. Death and clocks drearily dominate the narrative.
The 'poetic' metaphors are often hallucinatory and surreally envisioned .... "a butterfly "flies through the tailor's cheek, passing out of the back of the tailor's head, white and uncrumpled"...."An apple tree grows a mouth and eats its own apples," etc. Surely, some of her poetic metaphors suffered through the translation and that could have been part of my difficulty with her style.
I found little in the choppy, uneven, and doleful writing style that engaged me to care for any of the characters.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on July 2, 2010
Windisch is a miller in a small Romanian village on the German border. He is busy bribing the local officials with bags of flour to get a passport to emigrate with his family. Ultimately flour isn't enough and he has to offer his daughter....
A haunting tale where Muller tells in short snippets Windisch's story and also that of the dismal village, wrapped up in superstitions, corruption and the constant impositions made by the totalitarian regime.The fantasy forced upon them that the Ceausescu's are the mother and father of the nation;its ptotectorate,
I've read only one other Muller book,and like that one ('Land of Green Plums') 'The Passport' is told in fragments, each sticking in your mind adding to a bigger whole.
Brief outlines of Windisch's wife and first love Katherine's live in a Russian forced labour camp are never fully expounded on but add to the fears and paranoia about getting the passport out. As you would expect from decades of totalitarianism,you blank out the horrors just to keep on going. In this way Muller really does create the Ceausescu dystopia.
Only 90 pages long,'The Passport' demands reading and offers up more with each reading.