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Hell is Where You Find It
on April 19, 2010
Romania has probably never been my idea of Paradise -- not when it was the outermost corner of the Roman Empire, not in the millennia since, not even today -- but it was surely closer to Hell on Earth during the phony-communist tyranny of Ceauçescu than ever before. Nevertheless, though 'everyone' around them was obsessed with fleeing at any risk, the four young dissidents of this novel were painfully ambiguous about exiling themselves. As it turned out, the first of them to flee wouldn't last long in Germany anyway. But given how vile and perilous life was for them in Romania, as described anyway, one HAS to ask what held them so tenaciously. Family? Yet their families were hateful. Idealism? Long shed! Fear of otherness? Well, yes, that for sure...
The narrator is a young woman from a German-Romanian village, whose father had been an SS officer. Sent to the city for education and to make something of herself, she hooks up to three young men whose situations are similar. The narrator also forms tortured relationships with two women of her own age, a fellow student who commits suicide and the alienated daughter of a Party official of some importance. Is the narrator Herta Müller herself? Yes, of course, and no, of course not. The subject matter of Müller's novels is always the paranoic nightmare of life under the Dictatorship, with its interrogations, its betrayals, its abject corruption of all aspects of personality, but each novel tells a somewhat different story. As a reader, this time, I choose to think that "The Land of Green Plums" is a carefully crafted fiction, whatever details it may include from Müller's own experiences. It's all the more amazing that way. The poetic vividness of the narrator's memories need not be compromised by fact-checking. Vivid they are! Heart-rackingly personal, full of jagged coded symbolism, a whole interiorized secret language, in which 'fingernail clippers' mean 'interrogation' and 'blood drinking' stands for collaboration with the tyranny. This language is not always easily deciphered. It's fragmented and elusive, and any usual chronological constraints of narration do not apply. The narrator is simultaneously a village girl, a student, a woman the 'authorities' want to hound out of existence, and a atomized non-person-in-exile. What a powerful emotional tool Müller's cryptic coded language is, nevertheless! If anguish can ever be beautiful, Müller makes it so. Her originality and imagination are dazzling.
I chose to read this book, Müller's best known, in English because of the respect I have for the skill of translator Michael Hofmann. Having read it once that way, I certainly plan to read it again in German. It's good enough for the effort. The German title, by the way, has nothing to do with plums; it's "Herztier", a made-up word meaning literally 'heart-beast'. The English translation is possibly misleading; "The Land of Green Plums" might suggest an aura of nostalgia or romanticism that doesn't fit the book on any level. There are 'green plums' in the story, but they are toxic to those who eat them in the presence of anything honorable.
The six chief characters of Herztier are all 'dissidents'. They are perceived as such by the police, by their fellow students and colleagues at work, by their neighbors and families, even by strangers in the markets. One has to imagine them as 'standing out' conspicuously in how they dress, how they converse, how they cut or don't cut their hair. They are hated automatically, as 'beatniks' were in the 1950s in Middle America or 'skinheads' are today in many 'Free World' cities. One has to consider the possibility that their dissidence is deeper than political dissatisfaction. Don't they seem to realize as much, i.e. that they would be dissidents anywhere? The corruption and oppression that torments them in Romania is NOT just the weight of the totalitarian state, and Herztier is NOT just an agitprop critique of the "years of communism". Their society is as corrupt from the bottom up as from the top down. They are rejected and feared from below and above, most intensely by the little people around them who have accommodated, been coopted, perhaps even thrived on the police state. Many of the reviews of this book, and the blurb on the jacket, speak of Herta Müller's "triumph" against the corrosion of the totalitarian state. No question, Müller has triumphed as an artist, a Nobel prize winner. But I don't hear a blare of triumph - not even a bleat of relief - in her writing. Hers is a very bleak view of humanity as its own worst oppressor. It's a good thing she writes so well, or I wouldn't be able to tolerate her suffering.