FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Ceausescu’s Bleak Romania

When Herta M?ller won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2009, there were the usual observations. Who’s that? What has she written? Where’s she from? All easily answered these days with the Internet. M?ller was born in Romania in 1953 but fled to Berlin with her husband, also a writer, in 1987. Although she had published fiction before her departure?sometimes after the works were censored by the government?most of her novels, written in German and published after 1987, were written in Germany. If The Appointment is representative of her work, this is a writer worthy of the world’s most prestigious literary award.

The story is narrated from the main character’s perspective, beginning with the opening two sentences, “I’ve been summoned. Thursday, at ten sharp,” as she rides a tram, taking her to still another meeting with the secret police where she believes the consequences will be more sever than in the past. Prepared for the worst, she has brought a tooth brush and a towel along with her. As she waits the end of her tram ride, she recalls the details of her life?her childhood, her first marriage that led to divorce, her current marriage to a man named Paul. Above all, her apprehension that something ominous is about to happen to her, something claustrophobic and repetitive, a little like K’s approach to the unknown in Kafka’s novel, The Castle.

Nameless since she is emblematic of everyone is a police state, she nevertheless reveals bits and pieces of her attempt to escape Romania?to get out of the country and go anywhere, since anywhere would presumably be better than her current situation. We know that she’s been working in a woman’s clothing factory, one that produces fashionable clothes for the Western export market?not the drab clothing she and her friends wear. As she muses, “Cutting, switching, finishing, ironing, packing, and knowing all the time that you’re not worthy of the final product.” And we subsequently learn that her first infraction was placing notes in the pockets of men’s trousers sent to Italy: “Marry me, ti aspetto, signed with my name and address. The first Italian who replied would be accepted.”

“As long as I was still young, I wanted to go to the kind of beautiful country the clothes were exported to. I wanted to be worth clothes like that, and even prettier ones, and I wanted a generous husband to buy them for me. Three girls from the nursery gardens had married Italians. My father-in-law asked them about it and told us at home how it was done. Evidently there were men who craved the flesh of girls from these parts, usually bachelors, respected businessmen, who didn’t get around to marrying until their mothers were in their graves. They were the kind of mild-mannered, persnickety gentlemen in whom you could hardly tell caring demeanor from approaching senility, well-groomed men getting on in years.” In other words, anyone will do.

Outside of work, everything is bleak and people are barely able to survive. She heard her grandfather once observe “that life was just the farty sputter of a lantern, not even worth the bother of putting your shoes on.” Buildings?the flats where people live?are grimy; there’s not much food, certainly not nutritious food, because anything good is exported; men, especially, survive by drinking plum brandy; there’s rampant promiscuity; workers steal from the factories where they are employed. And quality control? Who’s heard of it? One of her friends discovers a mouse in a bottle of pickles; another, a finger inside a candy wrapper.

At work things are little better. More than once, Paul, her husband, who works in a metal factory, has finished his shower at the end of his shift and discovered that all of his clothes have been stolen. His glib observation: “Socialism sends its workers into the world unclad?. Every week or so it’s as if you [are] born anew. It keeps you young.” The narrator’s work situation is little better. At a convention with her boss, she gives in to his sexual demands. This turns out to be a terrible decision, because when they return home, her boss assumes that the relationship will continue. And when it doesn’t, he’s the one who provokes her latest summoning by placing new messages in the clothing for export.

M?ller has a good eye for the absurd, for orchestrating her story back and forth in time?especially to her narrator’s childhood. Nothing was better then. Her mother once told her, “If your brother had lived, we wouldn’t have had you.” With a family like that, and a police-state where most people have to struggle to get by, no surprise that personal relationships are equally tangential. Still, with Michael Hulse and Philip Boehm’s superb translation, The Appointment will keep you turning pages until the end of this bittersweet journey.

The Appointment
By Herta M?ller
Translated by Michael Hulse and Philip Boehm
Picador, 230 pp., $15.00

CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.

 

 

 

More articles by:

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

Weekend Edition
June 15, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Dan Kovalik
The US & Nicaragua: a Case Study in Historical Amnesia & Blindness
Jeremy Kuzmarov
Yellow Journalism and the New Cold War
Charles Pierson
The Day the US Became an Empire
Jonathan Cook
How the Corporate Media Enslave Us to a World of Illusions
Ajamu Baraka
North Korea Issue is Not De-nuclearization But De-Colonization
Andrew Levine
Midterms Coming: Antinomy Ahead
Louisa Willcox
New Information on 2017 Yellowstone Grizzly Bear Deaths Should Nix Trophy Hunting in Core Habitat
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Singapore Fling
Ron Jacobs
What’s So Bad About Peace, Man?
Robert Hunziker
State of the Climate – It’s Alarming!
L. Michael Hager
Acts and Omissions: The NYT’s Flawed Coverage of the Gaza Protest
Dave Lindorff
However Tenuous and Whatever His Motives, Trump’s Summit Agreement with Kim is Praiseworthy
Robert Fantina
Palestine, the United Nations and the Right of Return
Brian Cloughley
Sabre-Rattling With Russia
Chris Wright
To Be or Not to Be? That’s the Question
David Rosen
Why Do Establishment Feminists Hate Sex Workers?
Victor Grossman
A Key Congress in Leipzig
John Eskow
“It’s All Kinderspiel!” Trump, MSNBC, and the 24/7 Horseshit Roundelay
Paul Buhle
The Russians are Coming!
Joyce Nelson
The NED’s Useful Idiots
Lindsay Koshgarian
Trump’s Giving Diplomacy a Chance. His Critics Should, Too
Louis Proyect
American Nativism: From the Chinese Exclusion Act to Trump
Stan Malinowitz
On the Elections in Colombia
Camilo Mejia
Open Letter to Amnesty International on Nicaragua From a Former Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience
David Krieger
An Assessment of the Trump-Kim Singapore Summit
Jonah Raskin
Cannabis in California: a Report From Sacramento
Josh Hoxie
Just How Rich Are the Ultra Rich?
CJ Hopkins
Awaiting the Putin-Nazi Apocalypse
Mona Younis
We’re the Wealthiest Country on Earth, But Over 40 Percent of Us Live in or Near Poverty
Dean Baker
Not Everything Trump Says on Trade is Wrong
James Munson
Trading Places: the Other 1% and the .001% Who Won’t Save Them
Rivera Sun
Stop Crony Capitalism: Protect the Net!
Franklin Lamb
Hezbollah Claims a 20-Seat Parliamentary Majority
William Loren Katz
Oliver Law, the Lincoln Brigade’s Black Commander
Ralph Nader
The Constitution and the Lawmen are Coming for Trump—He Laughs!
Tom Clifford
Mexico ’70 Sets the Goal for World Cup 
David Swanson
What Else Canadians Should Be Sorry For — Besides Burning the White House
Andy Piascik
Jane LaTour: 50+ Years in the Labor Movement (And Still Going)
Jill Richardson
Pruitt’s Abuse of Our Environment is Far More Dangerous Than His Abuse of Taxpayer Money
Ebony Slaughter-Johnson
Pardons Aren’t Policy
Daniel Warner
To Russia With Love? In Praise of Trump the Includer
Raouf Halaby
Talking Heads A’Talking Nonsense
Julian Vigo
On the Smearing of Jordan Peterson: On Dialogue and Listening
Larry Everest
A Week of Rachel Maddow…or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Ronald Reagan
David Yearsley
Hereditary: Where Things are Not What They Sound Like
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail