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.
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.