Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Home is Where the Plums Are

As most of you will have gathered by now, far from being restricted to the big three countries (Germany, Austria and Switzerland), German-language literature comes from a wide area scattered across the heart of Europe.  In the past on my blog, we've travelled to Poland and the Czech Republic on our literary travels, and today's journey takes us back into eastern Europe, for a first look at another country with a German-speaking minority.  Make sure you're seated - this may be a bumpy ride...

Herta Müller was fairly unknown in the English-speaking world before her Nobel Prize win back in 2009, but she is fast becoming one of the must-read German-language writers.  Herztier (The Land of the Green Plums) is one of her most famous books and a good one to start with, describing as it does the life of a young woman in Müller's home country of Romania.  While the novel is fiction, you suspect that there is an awful lot of Müller herself hidden within its pages.

Herztier is narrated by an unnamed woman in her early twenties, a student in 'the city' (possibly Bucharest) whose life is changed by the death of one of her university room-mates, Lola.  Lola is flamboyant and carefree, and her morals are rather looser than certain people would like - and in 1980s Romania, standing out in this way is always going to cause trouble.

Lola commits suicide, using the narrator's belt to hang herself, and is posthumously expelled from the party.  This action is the catalyst for the narrator's rejection of the system and her friendship with three young men (Edgar, Kurt and Georg) who are also ambivalent about the country they live in.  At first, they enjoy messing around together and thumbing their nose at reality.  Eventually though, real life begins to press down on them, exerting pressure that not all of them will be able to bear...

Herztier is a book about life in a repressive regime, a state where freedom is a distant dream.  Even if daily life is fairly prosaic and uneventful, the knowledge of the potential repercussions of stepping out of line weighs down on the people, effectively rendering themselves self-censored.  An example of this is given when a 'vote' is held to determine whether poor Lola should be expelled from the party:
"Der Turnlehrer hob als erster die Hand.  Und alle Hände flogen ihm nach.  Jeder sah beim Heben des Arms die erhobene Arme der anderen an.  Wenn der eigene Arm noch nicht so hoch wie die anderen in der Luft war, streckte so mancher den Ellbogen noch ein bißchen.  Sie hielten die Hände nach oben, bis die Finger müde nach vorne fielen und die Ellbogen schwer nach unten zogen."
p.35 (Fischerverlag, 2007)
"The P.E. teacher raised his hand first.  And all the hands followed his.  While raising their hands, everyone looked at the raised hands of the others.  If their hand was not quite as high in the air as the others, they straightened their elbow a little more.  They held their hands high until their fingers fell forward, tired, and their elbows drooped heavily downwards."
Of course, everyone raises their hand - even the narrator...

The writer portrays several ways to live your life, each of them chosen by one of the main characters in the novel.  You can go with the flow and decide to cooperate with the regime, spying on family and friends.  You can ignore it all and live life like an animal, working all day, having sex in the bushes, drinking, fighting and doing it all again the next day.  You can give up on life in your homeland and apply to cross the border, never to see your country again.  Or you can despair of anything ever happening and leave it all behind, once and for all...

While the story can be seen as an attack on the Ceausescu regime in general, though, it can also be read as a description of the treatment of ethnic and linguistic minorities in Communist Romania.  The narrator and her friends are all ethnic Germans, descendants of German-speaking people who settled in the region generations before.  They tease each other with insults about their background, but other people are more serious in their dislike of the 'outsiders'.  The state is only too keen to pressure them into fleeing the country, leaving their homes and goods behind for 'real' Romanians.

Reading Herztier can be a little depressing at times.  There is very little (almost no) joy and laughter, and the writer's style enhances this feeling of emptiness.  The book consists of short sections moving around in time, most following the narrator's story, some exploring her childhood in the country, others foreshadowing future events.  The prose is fairly plain on the whole, devoid of any descriptive beauty that might lighten the tone.

Other reviews of this book that I've seen have been very mixed, and I can understand why a lot of people aren't too keen on it.  For me, it's a novel where the focus is squarely on the content rather than the style, but which still doesn't have a strong plot driving it forward.  However, that's a deliberate choice.  Herztier is meant to reflect the place the writer came from - decorating the starkness with pretty words would lessen the effect of the story.

I enjoyed Herztier, but I'm not convinced that Müller will become one of my favourite writers.  I get the feeling that her success is due more to what she says than how she says it, and that (for me) is the wrong way round ;)  Still, she's definitely a writer I'd like to try again, so if anyone has any suggestions, you know where to leave them.  Comments, please :)