Saturday, June 1, 2013

Devastating Novel "The Land of Green Plums" by Herta Müller

Herta Müller in 2007
Amrei-Marie unter
cc-by-sa3.0 und GFDL
Recently I read a devastating novel, The Land of Green Plums, by Romanian-born German writer Herta Müller (17 August 1953-), and have been haunted by the unbearable hard life she depicted unflinchingly ever since.  The original title, however, was Herztier, Heart Animal, or Heart Beast as the phrase translated by Michael Hofmann for Picador Book.  Besides being a novelist, Müller is also a poet, essayist and she was the recipient of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Literature. Born in Niţchidorf, Timiş County in Romania and her native language is German.[wikipedia]

The novel was set at the height of Ceauşescu's reign of terror and a mere daily existence was a heroic struggle, particularly for intellectuals.  The green plums were referring to omnipresent surveillance agents who chewed on those plums constantly.  Heart Animal was a living presence inside an individual the state was striving to stamp out like wildfire.  The stories she told was intentionally episodic and not always coherent and logical, thus she created a hallucinatory atmosphere and a nightmarish living environment one could not escape from.  The novel impressed me  most by its accurate depiction of seemingly inconsequential but cumulatively enormous burdens the state imposed upon individuals.  The book was a devastating read, particularly for people like me who grew up under the similar circumstances, if not as severe, and have close relatives and friends suffering the similar oppressions even now, more so than I had ever experienced, as the political situation in China gets more insufferable as the Communist Party's legitimacy gets shakier and the totalitarian regimes get lonelier.

The Land of Green PlumsThe language Müller employed was halting and haunting yet deceptively simple, and the images she conjured up hallucinatory, the morals clear, through tortuous paths. I have to quote some passages from the translated version, which would eloquently correlate all the points I just made.

Its preface was a poem by Gellu Naum (August 1, 1915 – September 29, 2001) was a prominent Romanian poet, dramatist, novelist, children's writer, and translator.[wikipedia]
   Everyone had a friend in every wisp of cloud
   that's how it is with friends where the world is full of fear
   even my mother said, that's how it is
   friends are out of the question
   think of more serious things                                             
                                        - Gellu Naum
On Page 94, Müller wrote:
I have been interrogated by Captain Pjele on his own without the dog Pjele. Maybe the dog Pjele was having a break, to eat or sleep. Maybe the dog Pjele was off in one of the building's many hidden rooms being trained, either learning something new or practicing something he already knew, while Captain Pjele was interrogating me. Maybe the dog Pjele was with the man and the canvas bag, on the tail of someone else in the street. Maybe with a different man and no canvas bag. Maybe the dog Pjele was following Kurt while Captain Pjele was interrogating me. How many men were there, and how many dogs? As many as a dog has hairs.
On Pages 121-122:
If Frau Margit spent too long reading and ate too many wafer scraps, her stomach would get so holy that she would belch as she peeled the potatoes, and then she would swear even more. Since I've known Frau Margit, holy for me means a dry, whitish crackling in the mouth that makes you belch and swear.
Finally, on Page 177:
On her wrist she had one of my father's dead wristwatches. Why do you wear if, I asked, if it doesn't work? Nobody can see that, she said, and you have one too. Mine works, I said, otherwise I wouldn't be wearing it. If I wear a watch, it makes me feel more secure, she said, even if it's not working. Then why ask me what time it is? I said.

Because that's all I can talk to you about, said Mother.
It was a most memorable book, beautiful and repulsive simultaneously.

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