Thursday, March 30, 2017

Every Word a Vicious Circle

The Passport by Herta Müller

                                          As it rushes madly ahead, this vicious circle of words imposes
                                                         a kind of cursed logic on what has been lived.

Whenever there is a buzz around a particular author, when everyone is reading her and talking about her and writing about her work, I have to wait until long after the dust has settled again before I myself can begin. Such certainly has been the case with the 2009 Nobel Laureate, the German-speaking Romanian author, Herta Müller. I simply couldn’t read her then–not because I didn’t think she was worth reading, a compelling choice for the prize, but because there was simply too much noise, too much interference, too much intellectual preening around her, for me to see her work freshly, to know it at first on my own.

After roughly eight years the hype around her has finally—most certainly—died down (In fact I hardly see her name mentioned anymore—Herta Müller, are you still there?), so that recently I began to work my way through her novels, some of which I’ve kept on a shelf by my desk. Among them, one of my favorites is her short, elegiac novel, The Passport. Set in Romania during the bleak Ceauşescu years, an era of violent political oppression, strict media censorship, and crippling shortages of food, clothing, and fuel (see my post Skinned about the contemporary Romanian poet, Mariana Marin), The Passport, originally entitled Der Mensch ist ein Grober Fasan auf der Welt or Man is a Great Pheasant in the World, tells the story of a modest village miller named Windisch who seeks to return with his family to West Germany, from where he has lived in Romania since he was trapped there, just after the war, by the redoubtable Berlin Wall:

Every day when Windisch is jolted by the pot hole, he thinks, “The end is here.” Since Windisch made the decision to emigrate, he sees the end everywhere in the village. And time standing still for those who want to stay. And Windisch sees that the night watchman will stay beyond the end.

The plot that ensues is simple, its implications horrific: Windsich, in an effort to attain permission to emigrate to West Germany, attempts to bribe the local mayor with sacks of flour, a desperate, naïve gesture that ultimately costs him much more.

Told in short sections, each with a title of its own, each at once integral to the narrative as a whole and pleasingly, poetically independent, the story unfolds as an accumulation of stark, sometimes disconnected images, visual non sequiturs, so that the process of reading the novel is something akin to opening a drawer in some beloved old uncle’ s house, just after he has died, and discovering a jumble of black and white photographs, each one more commanding, more unsettling, than the one before it. Of course, as a novel—here the deliberate creation of a formidable intelligence—the story is not nearly so random as it seems. Indeed the details and images ultimately take shape together with a remarkable cogency and force, so that one is struck dumb, at the end, by Müller’s darkly allegorical remaking of Romanian lives under the weight of decades of harsh, totalitarian rule, lives measured daily, surreally, by the anguished longing to escape. Over all of it flies an owl—to some the bird of death—seeking another roof on which to rest.

Peter Adam Nash

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