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I got Herta Müller’s ‘The Land of Green Plums as a gift from my favourite friend and I have been waiting for the right time to read it. So, when German Literature Month arrived, I took it down from the shelf and read it. Here is what I think.

‘The Land of Green Plums describes life in Romania during the Cold War. It is told by an un-named woman narrator who tells us about her life and that of her family and her three friends. The story starts from the time the narrator is studying at university and is living in a dormitory with five other girls. One day one of the girls commits suicide and the university disowns her. The narrator gets to meet three other boys who knew this girl. The four of them become friends. The rest of the story is about the four of them and how they graduate from university, go to work, how they live under the shadow of a totalitarian regime every day with uncertainty and fear and how they lose their jobs as they refuse to give up their individual freedom and how they try to emigrate from Romania.

 

Reading ‘The Land of Green Plums was like reading a long poem. A poem not in the popular sense in which we use that word – that the book has beautiful sentences, though it certainly had that – but in the sense that it is a succession of powerful, beautiful, fascinating and vivid images which are held together by a plot. The description in the inside flap calls them ‘simple images of hieroglyphic power’ and it felt nice reading that. Till around one-third of the book, the images predominate the plot and so the temptation is to linger on the sentences and read them again. And again. The story takes precedence over the plot after that, but the images keep coming till the end of the book.

 

The book starts with the lines :

 

When we don’t speak, said Edgar, we become unbearable, and when we do, we make fools of ourselves.

 

And in a very James Joycean way, the book ends with the same lines, giving it a circular look.

 

While reading the book, I had a suspicion at some point of time that many of the events described in it might be autobiographical. When I read the author’s Nobel lecture at the end of the book, these suspicions were confirmed. Some of the anecdotes that the author talks about in her lecture – for example, how her mother is taken to the police station and is locked inside for the whole day and how she cleans the room in the police station to keep herself occupied – all have corresponding anecdotes in the story. It is tempting to conclude that this book is a fictionalized autobiography of the author.

 

Towards the end of the book, there is a scene where the narrator’s friend Edgar is asked by the West German authorities to produce a document which said that he was fired from his job in Romania for political reasons. And that document has to come from the Romanian government. And this during the Cold War era. I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry when I read this. Really?

 

The edition of the book I have also had Herta Müller’s Nobel lecture. It is a beautiful essay on its own and was wonderful to read. I would love to read Müller’s memoir or autobiography, if she has written one, sometime. I have also not read many books by Nobel prize winning authors. When I did a quick count I discovered that out of 112 Nobel prize winning authors, I have read only 10 (and a short story by one, but I think that doesn’t count). So, it was nice to read add Herta Müller as my 11th author.

 

I liked ‘The Land of Green Plums very much. It is not a book that one reads at a fast pace – though that is possible because the language is deceptively simple – but a book which one reads slowly and lingers on each sentence. I want to explore more of Müller’s works now.

 

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

 

Mother says : Whenever life becomes unbearable, clean your closet. Then your worries will go out through your hands, and that will free our head.

 

You could say Lola’s sentences in your mouth. But they didn’t let themselves be written down. Not by me. They were like dreams, suited for speech but not for paper. When I wrote them down, Lola’s sentences dissolved in my hand.

 

My father, said Georg, took his bicycle to the station so that he wouldn’t have to walk so close to me on the way there, and so that, on the way back, his empty hands wouldn’t remind him he was returning home alone.

 

      Because we were afraid, Edgar, Kurt, Georg, and I met every day. We sat together at a table, but our fear stayed locked within each of our heads, just as we’d brought it to our meetings. We laughed a lot, to hide it from each other. But fear always finds an out. If you control your face, it slips into your voice. If you manage to keep a grip on our face and your voice, as if they were dead wood, it will slip out through your fingers. It will pass through your skin and lie there. You can see it lying around on objects close by.

      We could see whose fear was where, because we had known each other so long. Often we couldn’t stand each other, because we were all we had. We had no choice but to lash out at each other.

 

I wanted love to grow back, like the grass when it’s mown down. To grow differently, if need be, like children’s teeth, like hair, like fingernails. To spring up at will, wild and untended.

 

The child leaves the house where there are only grown-ups, to go play with the other children. She carries as many toys as she can, in her hands, in her pockets. Even in her underpants and up her dress. She empties out her dress and underpants, and spreads out her toys. Then, when the others start to play, the child can’t stand to have her toys played with by anyone else.

      The child is transformed by envy, because others are better at playing. By selfishness, because others are grabbing things that belong to her. But also by fear, that she will be left alone. The child doesn’t want to be envious, selfish, or fearful, and becomes all the more so.

 

      Mother swallowed. She said quietly : What time is it?

      On her wrist she had one of my father’s dead wristwatches. Why do you wear it, I asked, if it doesn’t work? Nobody can see that, she said, and ou 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 what time it is? I said.

      Because that’s all I can talk to you about, said Mother.

 

A friendship isn’t like a jacket that you can pass on to me, he said. I could slip it on. It might even look as though it fitted, from the outside, but on the inside it wouldn’t keep me warm.

 

This passage is from Muller’s Nobel lecture.

 

“DO YOU HAVE A HANDKERCHIEF was the question my mother asked me every morning, standing by the gate to our house, before I went out onto the street. I didn’t have a handkerchief. And because I didn’t, I would go back inside and get one. I never had a handkerchief because I would always wait for her question. The handkerchief was proof that my mother was looking after me in the morning. For the rest of the day I was on my own. The question DO YOU HAVE A HANDKERCHIEF was an indirect display of affection. Anything more direct would have been embarrassing and not something the farmers practiced. Love disguised itself as a question. That was the only way it could be spoken : matter-of-factly, in the tone of command, or the deft maneuvers used for work. The brusqueness of the voice even emphasized the tenderness. Every morning I went to the gate once without a handkerchief and a second time with a handkerchief. Only then would I go out onto the street, as if having the handkerchief meant having my mother there, too.”

 

Have you read Herta Müller’s ‘The Land of Green Plums? What do you think about it?

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