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Traveling on One Leg Hardcover – November 11, 1998
This month's Book With Buzz: "The Lying Game" by Ruth Ware
From the instant New York Times bestselling author of blockbuster thrillers "In a Dark, Dark Wood" and "The Woman in Cabin 10" comes Ruth Ware’s chilling new novel, "The Lying Game." See more
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From Publishers Weekly
For some, the pain of exile is too great even to be named. So it is for Irene, the 35-year-old protagonist of this slender but intense novel. In the 1980s, Irene has emigrated to West Germany from an unnamed Eastern bloc country to escape political persecution. Adrift in Berlin, living first in a refugee hostel and then in an anonymous apartment complex, Irene struggles to maintain her sanity while caught in an ambiguously romantic quadrangle with three men. First there is Franz, a student a decade her junior; then there is his friend Stefan, a sociologist; last is Stefan's friend Thomas, a gay man in perpetual emotional crisis. But Irene's largest preoccupation is with herself, and the novel presents a knife-sharp portrait of her acute isolation and uprootedness. Irene's anxiety as she faces her adoptive homeland's hectoring refugee bureaucracy, her unsentimental observation of Berlin street life and her rigorously controlled homesickness is depicted in spare prose that is never less than striking. The reader with a distaste for indirection, or for the kind of heroine who considers children "eerie because they're still growing," will find this novel slow going. But those patient enough to pick out the plot line amid the poetry will be rewarded with a small trove of unforgettable images. (Oct.) FYI: M?ller, a Romanian refugee living in Germany, is the recipient of the Kleist Prize and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Her novel The Land of Green Plums is forthcoming from Northwestern University Press.
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From Kirkus Reviews
The first English translation of an earlier work (published in 1992) from the acclaimed Mller (The Land of Green Plums, 1996) is a profound story of dislocation: an exile from Romania struggles to find her bearings in Berlin just before the end of the Cold War. Even in her native land, Irene was already something of a stranger, taking long walks by the sea partly because she knew there would be an old man, waiting in the bushes, who would masturbate while looking at her. A chance encounter on the beach with a young, drunken German provides her with someone she knows when she crosses the border for good, but Franz, fearful of commitment, can't bear to meet her at the airport, sending his friend Stefan to make the connection instead. While Irene endures the scrutiny of German bureaucrats before receiving relocation aid and citizenship, she also suffers a malaise of the heart brought on by the mixed messages of Franz, Stefan, and, finally Stefans friend Thomas, who, though the most responsive to her, is also bisexual. Irene settles into a routine in her new Berlin apartment, a routine regularly punctuated by visits to or visits from her men and supplemented by her daily observations of the beer-bellied construction worker who labors on the scaffolding outside her window. It's a life of waiting, of anomie and despair, but for all that its the bitterness of such an existence that she keenly feels and sharply observes. Through it all, Irene knows she will endure. With a cool, minimalist style that simulates alienation, this fictional bleakness is not an easy read, but even in its now-dated Cold War milieu, it dramatizes a fact that seems fundamentally human: that, somehow, everyone is alone. -- Copyright ©1998, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.
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Reading the top review will help understand my perspectives below.
An Allegory of Emigration and Longing
Irene (really Herta Mueller herself) has dreams about what it will be like in her new homeland. The old one is symbolically portrayed as a masturbator in the bushes who asks her to just stand there while he takes his pleasure. He won't harm her, he says deceptively (because the damage has already been done). The new land of her dreams is embodied in a self - centered drunk traveler she first meets right before her departure. She falls instantly in love but we are given not the least indication why. Of course, she would be in love with any country that was not Romania! She looks him up once emigrated and he is still distant, still in another city, and sends stand-ins, two men, one (Stefan) a sociologist,no less, who fall s in love with her and the other bisexual and intriguing (Thomas) with whom she also has an affair. In a comparison the masturbator, (Irene always compares her new country with the old) Thomas represents a country that is distant and self - centered; in which she cannot yet assimilate or belong. The new country is Germany, to which she has ancestral ties as an ethnic German Banat Shwobe, but those links were long ago frayed by Nazi dictatorship and abuses of her father and community during WWII; and she finds her longstanding isolation in Romania transposed and metamorphosed into loneliness and failed dreams in Germany. The longing for community in her new land is as frustrated as her sexual relations with these men. All is expressed in this wonderful book in mysterious, ambiguous prose that merges into poetry. No paragraph is a clear unambiguous description of a scene, character, or inner state. All is allusion. Indirection. Shards of splendor and pebbles of rubble in her shoe. The cars in a street covered with yellow leaves remind her of coffins. Are they for her despair, a commentary on German society, or for her dreams of what life could be like in her new land? Is she homesick? - not in the normal way, but her fears that consumed her in Romania have not been allayed and have a life of their own. She is interviewed by an immigration official and the bureaucracy of the Romanian Securitate who have hounded her for years exudes in the small details of coffee cups and the indifferent chats between the agent and an assistant. A letter from a friend in Romania revives her gratefulness for her new freedom (revealed as sexual energy and desire) intertwined with a sense of loss of all her goals of escaping persecution that have driven her so many years and are now cataclysmically irrelevant. She is drained, spent, empty, lonely, struggling to find new goals. The indelible marks of persecution and a tarnished broken family life pervade every daily activity. There is much sickness but no home. If you can feel emotionally sympathetic and at home in this bleak atmosphere, this book has much to offer. It grapples with the complexity of life in ways no other author has dared. There is no moralizing; only poetry.
The novella itself offers the excitement of novelty and experimentation. There is no clear narrative structure, only sentences that are as isolated as Irene in her new land. They are often disconnected details of her everyday surroundings; fragments of people and situations; allusions and indirections. Their meaning and relevance is often very obscure. There is much surreal detail: a vein leaves the eye and traces a nose; strangers' narratives constantly slip into Irene's and are not distinguished or separate: salespeople talk to other customers as if to Irene. Some of it seems stream of consciousness displaced onto the objects that surround, but it is seldom a continuous stream; more like disrupted flitting from object to thought to object again, and so on. In a way, it is like the collage at the center of the novel, with odd images combined until they acquire a meaning of their own, but other images excluded but seeking combination even outside the collage. Some of this works fluidly but the poor reader is often the one left out of the collage. This fragmentary structure is used to effect in some of the other novellas, such as the Land of Green Plums, but there the narrative story line was compelling itself, with a mystery that demanded resolution (like her fate with the Securitate or the nature of her relationships; or the success of overcoming obstacles to obtain an exit). Here the nature of success with her relationships is completely obscure; there is no way to know if any success has been achieved; and obtaining German citizenship seems straightforward and without suspense. So there is no overarching narrative to hold a reader's interest and suspense. Instead one must be satisfied with the ordinary course of life and its living rather than its dramatization. The novella comes to a termporary closure with (no spoiler alert needed) citizenship in the end, and apparently a fitting in, conciliation with German society at large,as at last she has some fulfillment with Franz.
Near the end of the novel, Irene says "I understood why people were unhappy in the other country. The reasons were obvious. It hurt a lot to see the reasons day in day out. * * * And here, I know there are reasons. I can't see them. It hurts not to be able to see the reasons day in day out."
I do not doubt that similar disappointment and confusion is experienced by many émigrés from the former communist states of eastern Europe. Nor do I doubt that many people often experience life as a series of disconnected episodes, some quite dreamlike or hallucinatory in nature. Nor do I doubt that some poor souls fixate inordinately on mundane objects - graffiti, a pebble in a shoe, a pubic hair in the bathtub. But such are not intrinsically the makings of a rewarding novel. To transform such meager material into literature requires, at a minimum, inspired writing and, probably, a generous dose of humor (madcap or acerbic). TRAVELING ON ONE LEG lacks any such transformative qualities. The writing is spare and stark - as flat and black-and-white as the world of Irene it so numbingly portrays.
This is the third of Mûller's works of fiction that I have read in translation in the past six months. After reading one ("The Passport"), I could understand how other works of its author might conceivably warrant a Nobel Prize for Literature. Not so with either "Nadirs" or TRAVELING ON ONE LEG. To the contrary, based on them the award of the Nobel Prize to Herta Mûller is somewhat bewildering.