December 2009 - January 2010

Arts & Letters

Daytime nightmares

By Robert Dessaix
Herta Müller’s ‘The Land of Green Plums’ and ‘The Passport’

We all know the paintings: the floating brides, the fiddlers and farmyard animals. Colours from a palette only glimpsed in dreams. Marc Chagall, of course. Who else could it be? Not just a land of heightened reality but a world beyond the real, where metaphor becomes flesh. And the prose of Herta Müller, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in October, puts me in mind of nobody more strongly than Chagall.

What it is about Eastern Europe that produces this kind of surrealistic vision is hard to say. (Müller was born to German-speaking parents in Romania, where she lived before emigrating to Germany in 1987.) Perhaps life there was so phantasmagorical, so absurd, so upside down and delusional that no other way of portraying it would ring true. And not only during the communist years, either: Gogol wrote his fantastical stories set in the little town of Mirgorod, for instance, as well as ‘The Nose’ and ‘Diary of a Madman’, nearly a century before the grotesqueries of Russian communism burst into poisonous flower. However, whereas Chagall’s paintings – or Gogol’s stories, for that matter – are exuberant and highly coloured, Müller’s writing is dark and joyless, at least as far as I can judge from reading her 1994 novel The Land of Green Plums (Granta, 256pp; $21.95 trans. Michael Hofmann) and The Passport (Serpent’s Tail, 96pp; $21.95; trans. Martin Chalmers), originally published in 1986.

In these novels the daydream has become a nightmare – understandably enough, some might say. In Müller’s village in Ceausescu’s Romania, the whimsical becomes maniacal and mischief turns into pure malevolence. Here, the farmyard animals are savagely slaughtered; life turns into a farrago of madness, drunkenness, superstition and whoring; and “flight” now means just one thing: getting out of Romania.

While all the main characters in both works are waiting to leave their village for West Germany, these novels are not about waiting to leave Romania, but about the dehumanising nightmare of life in Eastern Europe – a nightmare in which people become objects and objects take on a life of their own. Those who seek to hold onto their sanity are driven to suicide, murdered or cast aside to rot. For those who do not try to escape, life becomes a timeless “meaningless afternoon”. The psychosis gripping the country is merciless. This all seems a long way from Chagall’s joyfulness – or from Gogol’s craziness, which is not quite the same thing as madness.

It is less what Müller describes than how she does it that brings Chagall to mind. In both The Land of Green Plums (mysteriously called Herztier – ‘heart-beast’ – in its original German) and The Passport (even more mysteriously called Der Mensch ist ein grosser Fasan auf der Welt – ‘man is a great pheasant on Earth’) there is, for instance, the small village familiar from Chagall, although here it is populated not by despised Jews but by despised Germans, many of them with wartime SS connections; the same supporting cast of slightly freakish humans and animals; and there are the same small-town nobodies, dreaming of escape. But these motifs form only a small part of what links the novels to Chagall’s paintings – or to Mikhail Bulgakov, Franz Kafka, Bohumil Hrabal, Milan Kundera and any number of other Eastern European writers, especially Czechs. It’s how she writes rather than what she writes about that is most redolent of Eastern European art.

Make no mistake about it: the way Müller writes makes her work difficult to read, except in short bursts. According to the Swedish Academy, she “depicts the landscape of the dispossessed” with “the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose”. That’s to put it politely. Her landscape is not just that of the dispossessed: it is a blighted landscape, swarming with the mad, the vicious, the two-faced, the stupid and spiritually dead – even in West Germany, where her main characters – like Müller herself – end up. And while her prose is certainly ‘poetic’ – Müller is also a poet, and The Land of Green Plums and The Passport could be described as linked prose poems – it is so studiedly and unrelentingly poeticised that any attempt to read it with love and wonder becomes a chore.

“Death was whistling for me” – quite striking, and “Mother and Grandfather are hanging over the table from a rope of thread and light” – fine, I can see Mother sewing at a table with Grandfather beneath a light bulb. But “I saw them carrying mulberry trees out of their provinces and into their faces” (Müller describing shoppers from out of town), or “The wind knocks on the wood. It’s sewing. The wind is sewing a sack in the earth” – really, I’m being asked to do too much deciphering here. In a poem, you may not mind mulling over these kinds of surrealistic images – there are plenty in Czeslaw Milosz’s poetry (to name another Nobel laureate), each one, such as these two from ‘A Frivolous Conversation’, a tightly packed grenade of possible meanings about to explode:

My past is a stupid butterfly’s overseas voyage.

My future is a garden where a cook cuts the throat of a rooster.

However, after a few dozen pages, let alone by the end of a few hundred, reading Müller becomes a tiresome game you never quite win.

The basic device is clear: there are no ‘as if’s, no ‘he was like’s; the metaphor (or instance of metonymy) is the reality. So a hat walks past a window, not a man in a hat. A wooden bicycle creaks in a fence, a fence does not creak like a wooden bicycle. Fair enough. Even quite telling in small doses: “Tereza was ugly because the ticking of the clock was breaking her into small pieces.” Here, succinctly and vividly, Müller tells us much more about Tereza and the narrator’s attitude to her than ‘realistic’ storytelling would have allowed.

Yet over the course of a whole novel, the device becomes deadening. Sure, Romania was deadening under Ceausescu – often literally. But, as a reader, I want to be enlivened and fall under a spell. When the whole world being described is turned into an artefact, from the trees and furniture to the main characters, I stay unbewitched. “Making strange”, as the Russian Formalists called devices of this kind, must never become “making alien”. One paragraph of Gogol’s ‘The Overcoat’, on the other hand, and I am as mad as he is. Müller employs another deadening device, the purpose of which eludes me entirely. Virtually every sentence has the structure subject–verb–predicate. Here is a typical paragraph from The Passport:

Udo comes through the door. He’s looking for his flag. It is black, red and gold. A German flag. Udo hangs his coat on the hook, above the flag. He takes off his shoes. He puts on his red slippers. He places his shoes under his seat.

And so on. There is a brief surge of excitement when an adverbial phrase appears before the subject (“Every evening she brings Amalie sugar, butter, cocoa and chocolate.”). But then we’re back to it: “Udo will be coming … We’ve been told … The dentist pushes her daughter … A white beret hangs …” By now I am begging for a sentence to begin with a participle, a subordinate clause – anything, really, except its subject. Yes, I know that to live in Ceausescu’s Romania was like being hit on the head with a hammer, endlessly, until you died, but must my life as a reader feel like that too? Perhaps the translation is to blame, but I doubt it. I think it’s the way Herta Müller tells stories. I think it is the way she has ‘poeticised’ her text that I find numbing.

Presumably, the Nobel committee determined that in 2009 it would be appropriate to give the prize for literature to an Eastern European who had written about life under the system that fell apart in 1989. Müller had certainly been ‘acclaimed’: she had won the Dublin IMPAC Literary Award and the Kleist Prize in Germany, to name just two of dozens, and been translated into more than 20 languages. All the same, the choice seems curious, if not perverse: of all the novelists and poets from Estonia to Bulgaria, from Berlin to Vladivostok writing about the years of totalitarian rule, there can be few acknowledged masters of their genre as obscure and as unlikely to find a wide readership as Herta Müller.

Robert Dessaix
Robert Dessaix is a novelist, essayist and journalist. He is the author of A Mother’s Disgrace, Corfu and Twilight of Love.

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