Saturday, March 13, 2010

Reading Muller's The Land of Green Plums

I recently finished reading The Land of Green Plums the novel written by 2009 Nobel Prize winner Herta Muller. Muller is Romanian-German and there were several reasons I put the book on my reading list. I’d never read any Muller, or to be honest, heard of her before the Nobel bestowed its prize. I also have a slight aversion to German fiction after living in Munich for a few years and felt it time to move beyond my own pathology (don't ask but it was one of my 2010 New Year’s resolutions). More importantly, my in-laws, now living in Jerusalem, fled pre-Ceau┼čescu Romania in the early 1960s. Their exit may have been part of what is known as the “Gentlemen’s Agreement” between Romania and Israel under which Israel paid Romania hard currency or provided economic assistance for every Jew “allowed” to emigrate. Even for Jews, such a decision must have been difficult as those that applied to leave were labeled enemies of the Communist system, of the country. This resulted in immediate humiliating dismissal from the place of employment and social stigmatisation. My in-laws left businesses, friends, family and came to Israel where a few years later, my husband and his sister were born. Muller herself may have been part of this same program as in the 1960s Ceausescu decided to "sell" not only Jews, but also Romanians of German origin who wanted to return to live in Germany -- The "selling" of people was a unique occurrence in modern history. He considered "Jews, Germans, and oil" the most important export commodities in Romania. For all those reasons, Muller seemed an important writer.

The novel takes place in an unspecified location and time, though it is a large city and sometime during Romanian dictator Ceausescu’s reign 24-year reign. I imagined Bucharest, Romania’s capital, in the late 1970s or early 1980s. The novel is told through the eyes of an unnamed young woman who leaves her small village for college and work. The narrator is of German origin, and may be modeled on Muller herself. We do learn names of several of her friends—Lola, Tereza, Edgar, Kurt, and Georg. Lola, one of the narrator’s roommates, kills herself early in the book. By the end, Tereza, who may or may not be an informant, succumbs to some unnamed disease perhaps cancer, Kurt and Georg are dead, after fleeing Romania, while the narrator and Edgar, who also manage to escape, are living in a state of still-constant fear in Germany.

The language in the book is simple and usually told via the interior monologue of the main character. Thus we often lose track of who is speaking, the action. Muller also uses created metaphors such as ‘heartbeast,’ ‘the eating of green plums’ by police officers, a ‘singing’ grandmother to indicate emotional states. The metaphors are strange, but are very expressive. They make you feel the oppressive atmosphere in a totalitarian regime, one starts to feel persecuted by "harmless men with dogs" walking behind you, one can relate perfectly well to how the characters grow more and more hopeless.

The Land of Green Plums brings to mind absurdist literature in the vein of Camus and Kafka. The novel lacks a traditional plot structure, the characters are ambiguous in nature, and it is basically a study of human behavior under circumstances that are highly unusual. But this is a perfectly valid way of expressing such life in art. To deal with the experience of totalitarianism would appear to demand either a talent for such poetic near-evasion or for absurdist, almost surreal comedy. In Muller’s case, it is the former rather than the latter. Humor, at least here, is not one of her tools. But given the suffering and deprivation Romanians suffered under Ceausescu, including her own, perhaps Muller felt any lightening of the novel’s atmosphere would have been further absurdity.

I admit I have typically turned to the poetic works by Czeslaw Milosz, Durs Grunbein, Adam Zagajewski, Anna Achmatova, Osip Mandelstam as lenses into this type of experience. Muller’s work though cannot be ignored. It isn’t necessarily fun reading, but it is I suppose necessary.

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