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Thursday, November 15, 2001

Book Reviews

The Liability of Happiness

The Appointment by Herta Müller. Translated by Michael Hulse, Philip Boehm, and Micha Hulse. Metropolitan Books, New York, 214 pages, 2001, $23.00.

The exterior framework of Herta Müller’s The Appointment depicts an unnamed young woman as she rides a streetcar to meet with her interrogator in the secret police, Major Albu, at ten sharp. Between brief glimpses of her fellow passengers, the passing streets, and her increasing anxiety at reaching her destination, the ride is broken up with multiple flashbacks to her childhood, family history, first and second marriages, and the recent past that brought her to this point. For, as the narrator admits, “It’s easy to talk about bad years if they are past. But when you have to say who you are right at this very moment, it’s hard to get more out than an uneasy silence.” And, indeed, there are many bad years that are described in this work, but at this very moment, as the clock approaches ten, she is “nothing, apart from being summoned.”

The Appointment is the recent English translation of a work from the extensive literary output of this writer born in Romania in 1953 in the German-speaking village of Nitzkydorf. Müller studied German and Romanian literature at the University of Timisoara, where she became a part of the Aktionsgruppe Banat, a group of idealistic Romanian-German writers seeking freedom of expression under the Ceausescu dictatorship. Prohibited from publishing in Romania because of her public criticism of the communist regime, Müller eventually emigrated to the West in 1987 and has lived in Berlin since that time.

Much of her work serves as a testimony to political events and the human destruction – primarily at the very personal level of individual identity and human relationships – brought on by the regime. The Appointment, like The Land of Green Plums (1996), for which Müller won the Kleist Prize and Dublin Literary Prize, addresses questions of trust, betrayal, self-consciousness, hope, and loss. Her vivid use of poetic imagery and metaphor, however, stand in stark contrast to the bleak tenor of these themes, thereby placing the reader in the brief position of her narrator, who wonders at the brilliance of the moon within the desolate setting of the life around her: “How bizarre that something so beautiful could be up in the sky, with no law down here on earth forbidding people to look at it.”

As the narrator informs us, four options existed for life in Romania under Ceausescu: don’t get summoned and don’t go mad; don’t get summoned but do lose your mind; do get summoned and do go mad; get summoned but don’t go mad. Although her story, as she admits, is one of firmly staking her claim and defending her position under the fourth option, the success of this enterprise is never assured given the desolation and despair inflicted on a people by the oppressive regime under which they live. As a shoemaker points out derisively to her, “Whatever they need, they’ve shipped off to Moscow: they eat our grain and our meat and leave us to go hungry and fight over the shortages. Who’d want to conquer us, all it would do is cost them money. Every country on earth is happy not to have us, even the Russians.”

In her own desperate attempt to flee, the narrator has slipped notes that say, “Marry me,” into the pockets of linen suits produced for export to Italy in the factory in which she works. The notes are signed with her name and address. When a jealous ex-lover accuses her of hiding similar notes with the message, “Best wishes from the dictatorship,” in trousers bound for Switzerland, she is fired and sent for questioning to the secret police. As she wryly observes, “Instead of an Italian I landed the Major,” referring to Major Albu, who greets her at each meeting with a perversely painful greeting: “As a woman, I know how I look on any given day. I also know that a kiss on the hand shouldn’t hurt, that it shouldn’t feel wet, that it should be delivered to the back of the hand.”

In the narrator’s environment, happiness is seen as a liability and luck as a “kind of trap.” The world she describes is a place of heavy drinkers; her second husband, Paul, drinks every night from a bottle of Two Plums brandy whose label, depicting two plums leaning “cheek-to-cheek,” reminds her of her wedding picture. This is a country of uninterrupted wariness; a place where waiting in lines for basic goods is commonplace, where people borrow children to get larger rations, and where an old woman cannot replace her glasses because the optician has no supplies. Here, the women in the clothing factory in which she works can only buy West-bound dresses that have weaving-flaws or oil stains – “otherwise they’d be too good for the likes of us.” It is a land where her best friend, the beautiful Lilli, is shot to death as she attempts to cross the Hungarian border with her boyfriend. In this place of utter desolation, even the relatively fortunate, to say nothing of their less favored countrymen, are led to think: “This can’t be all the life I get.” And whether it is doomed to success or failure, the attempt to escape “will be made, whether sooner or later, in this way or that.”

Perhaps most devastating in these accounts, however, are the pervasive and insidious acts of betrayal that leave no relationship uncorrupted. These range from the sacrifice of acquaintances for political expediency or personal gain to a father’s rejection of his family, a mother’s disdain of her daughter, and the secrets and lies of a lover. Surely it is no accident that the names of the three most prominent men in her recent past – Nelu, the rebuffed lover; Major Albu, her interrogator; and even Paul, her second husband – are near anagrams. Who does one turn to when the one you most trust is cast into suspicion? “Instead of these thoughts we’re constantly mulling over, it would be better to have the actual things inside your head, so you could reach in and touch them. People you want, or people you want to be rid of. Objects you’ve held on to or lost. There would be an order to things in my head.…Surfaces and contours would be divided into friends and foes, easy to tell apart. And in between there’d still be some space for happiness.”

It is precisely this lack of order, however, which defines not only the events and relationships remembered over the course of the morning, but the very manner in which they are narrated. For there can be no ordering of events that, as the narrator accepts, are utterly senseless. On the opening page, the narrator describes seeing white berries that in turn remind her of buttons, then bread pellets, a flock of birds, snow, and, finally, chalk. In similar fashion, it is no easier to sort, categorize, define, or secure the memories and emotions of a lifetime than it is to know or understand the motivations of another human being. As she recalls sitting in the interrogation room across from Albu, the narrator remarks, “The worst thing is this feeling that my brain is slipping down into my face. It’s humiliating, there’s no other word for it, when your whole body feels like it’s barefoot. But what if there aren’t any words at all, what if even the best word isn’t enough.” The only thing that could perhaps be worse than this nakedness and exposure before the state is her inability to communicate the exact nature of this experience, either to herself or to others. By extension, the narrative can be no more ordered for us, as readers.

It is in this fashion perhaps that one can begin to read the wealth of imagery of metaphor and inanimate objects within these pages – the importance of a button, ants, fruit on the verge of spoiling, a dirty or clean comb, a pair of sandals, a glass eye. German readers of Müller’s more recent work will perhaps recognize some of this imagery in the author’s collage texts, which combine cut-outs of words with visual images and shapes, resulting in a tactile and, literally, textured, image-based poetics. Similarly, in The Appointment, these objects become markers for the narrator, tools she can use to begin to sort through the ambiguity of her world, conduits to the recovery of a past that led her inexorably to this streetcar ride. The work traces, then, the reluctant attempt on the part of the narrator to say who she is or, at least, to encounter herself, something suggested already in the work’s original German title. Through her language, the author breaks the “uneasy silence” surrounding this tragic history.

Stefanie Harris is assistant professor of German and comparative literary studies at Northwestern University.
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