Life as it ain't

"I'm not really from outer space. I'm just mentally divergent."

In Herta Müller’s book, behind the back-pains, I read:

Posted by Ronak M Soni on March 1, 2010

Book Cover

The Land of Green Plums by Herta Müller, translated from the german Herztier by Michael Hofmann. Published by Granta 2009, 240 pages. Design: Dan Mogford; Photography: Glen Erler


Don’t take me wrong, The Land of Green Plums – recommended to me as the second best of the 2009 Nobel prize winner’s books and the best among those translated into English – is a beautiful book, in almost every way possible. The problem is that there’s not much behind all the beauty. It’s just the chronicle of four independent spirits living under the cruel reign of the communist dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu, and their various sufferings.

My strongest problem in all this was: exactly how happy these people would be in a free country? I never got an indication as to the unhappiness being a squashed happiness rather than just the lack of it. There is, in fact, an indication to the contrary, though I can’t reveal it because it comes too late in the book.

The book is narrated by a nameless woman (a stand-in for Müller, whose life-story this could well be), and aims to basically be a portrait of both the inner and outer lives in Ceauşescu’s Romania, following her through her interactions with friends, family, and agents of the state.

All of which could make for rather heavy going, and it does. Just never dreary. There are two reasons for this. First, obviously, the writing, which is so consistently good that no single passage stands out among the rest. So, picked out from a random review on the web:

The gym instructor was the first to raise his hand. All the other hands flew up after his. While raising their hands, everybody looked up at the raised hands of the others. If someone’s own hand wasn’t as high as the others’, he would stretch his arm a little farther. People kept their hands up until their fingers grew tired and started to droop and their elbows began to feel heavy and pull downward. Everyone looked around, and since no one else’s arm was lowered, they straightened their fingers again and extended their elbows. Sweat stains showed under the arms; shirts and blouses came untucked. Necks were stretched, ears turned red, lips parted and stayed half-open. Heads kept still, while eyes slid from side to side.
It was so quiet among the hands, someone said inside the cube, that you could hear the breathing up and down the wooden benches. And it stayed that quiet until the gym instructor laid his arm across the lectern and said: There’s no need to count, of course we’re all in favor.

And, second, the metaphors. This novel abounds in them, thanks to the often child-like and occasionally childish view taken of the world by the narrator, who has been slightly wary of life right from childhood. The green plums, for example. When she was a child, her father who she hated because he was an ex-SS man who still sang Hitler’s praises, warned her not to eat plums while they were still green, because she wouldn’t feel the soft pits going in and she couldn’t possibly be stopped from dying once it was stuck somewhere. From that day on, she starts sneaking in as many green plums as possible. Later, all the policemen in the city go out of their way to eat green plums while patrolling, and … well, never mind, I hope you catch my drift.

So, what makes this book “a beautiful book, in almost every way possible”? The handling of these metaphors within the beautiful writing; whatever forms of shallowness I found the book guilty of, emotional wasn’t one of them. Recently, I went to a short film making workshop, in which the instructor said that the best stories were the ones that had embedded in them the idea of a circle. I don’t know if I agree, but I can tell you one thing: this book takes the form of a circle, on the level of story, on the level of character, and on the level of ambient metaphor, and in this particular instance, at least, that’s how it works.


4 Responses to “In Herta Müller’s book, behind the back-pains, I read:”

  1. So was this book all flash (i.e. style) and no substance? It sounds like the emotional wells are deep, but there’s no point to the emotion.

  2. Exactly. But in this case, it was worth it, I think (I remember we had a little disagreement along the same lines about Naguib Mahfouz’s Rhadopis of Nubia, but both of us were on the other side). Here’s how another guy describes it, which I think captures both the novel and its worth much better than anything I wrote:

    Its not your typical language, as she infuses nouns, objects in sentences gradually with more multiplicities of meaning each time they recur, they become re-contextualized each time, resonating and refering back to the layers as the narrative builds. I have to emphasize it is NOT ponderous reading. Tho not really plot driven, the narrative does not wander, but builds on itself. Müller’s narrator takes one to places that normally only poetry treads, it hits hard in the head and heart.

  3. Geofbob said

    Ronak, A late comment. “My strongest problem in all this was: exactly how happy these people would be in a free country?” But why should you ask that question? If you read a novel about unhappy people in a “free country”, do you ask “how happy would these people be under a dictatorship?” Do you wonder how it would be for Anna Karenina in Victorian London? While Tolstoy may not have been correct about all happy families being alike, unhappy & discontented people certainly make for more interesting novels, whatever the political regime.

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