Herta Müller, The Land of Green Plums. New York: Henry Holt and Company, Metropolitan Books, 1996.
When the Romanian-German author Herta Müller burst upon the European literary scene in 1984 with her collection of stories entitled Niederungen, she was hailed as a writer whose deceptively simple style was unique among German writers both for the purity of its language and for its stark poetic imagery. The title story of this collection portrayed with unflinching candor the author's childhood home of Nitzkydorf, a German-speaking village in the Banat region of Romania. In a manner reminiscent of Maxim Gorky's My Childhood, Müller pierced the facade of idealized village life to show its harsh oppressiveness and the withering effects it had upon her childhood.
In her later, longer works -- Der Mensch ist ein großer Fasan auf
der Welt, Reisende auf einem Bein, Der Fuchs war damals schon
der Jäger -- Müller focussed on adult characters, but in her
latest novel The Land of Green Plums (Herztier in German),
she has created what is arguably her most autobiographical novel to date,
and interwoven a thick strand of childhood memories into a story line which
begins with the narrator's student years at the University of Timisoara.
The novel shows the human destruction caused by the Ceausescu dictatorship;
at the same time, through linkages with the narrator's past, it demonstrates
how the oppression of the state is a continuation of the oppression the narrator
experienced in her childhood village. This layered approach underscores the
fact that the Ceausescu dictatorship was not unique, for both the narrator's
SS father and the Romanian dictator "made graveyards." To distinguish between
the two time layers, Müller writes the childhood memories of her narrator
in the third person and the present tense, while relating the novel's "present"
in first-person, preterit-forms. By depersonalizing the figure of the child
Müller lends these memories broad applicability, while the present tense
forms suggest that one can never escape one's memories or one's past.
Sights, sounds, and imagery link the narrator's present with past memories.
A university student hangs herself with the belt of the narrator's dress,
and the narrator remembers how her mother used to use her dressbelt to tie
her daughter to a chair while she trimmed the child's nails. A brown field
checkered with snow reminds one of the father's brown-and-white checkered
house slippers, and how he had once crushed his daughter's hand between them.
The tassels on those slippers are recalled when the adult narrator sees a
horse with tassels hanging before its eyes to remind it of the beatings it
has endured from a tasseled whip.
The child's singing grandmother tells it to "Rest your heart-beast now, you've
played so much today," and the "heart-beast" recurs throughout the story
-- as the frosty breath of the frightened dissident students, as the departed
spirits of the narrator's father and grandmother. "Heart-beast" is an image
of vulnerability, and it is the title of the German original. The English
title takes another of Müller's images -- green plums -- that links
vulnerability with brutality. The father tells the child not to eat the hard
green plums because the tender pits will kill her. Still, the young men who
flee the provinces to become members of the state police guard gorge themselves
on green plums. The green plums do not kill them, but they do "make them
stupid," and they work off the "poisonous fire" of the soft pits by terrorizing
the frightened populace. The plums acquire frightful connotations in the
city, where "plumsuckers" is a term of abuse for "upstarts, opportunists,
sycophants, and people who stepped over dead bodies without remorse [...].
The dictator was called a plumsucker, too."
All the figures of the novel carry their provincial childhoods with them
into the cities. Displaced villagers carry them, quite literally, in the
mulberry trees they bring to plant in city courtyards. But they also carry
the provinces "into their faces." The cities are not only an extension, but
a degradation, of the provinces. Shepherds who flee the country to come and
work in state factories produce useless "tin sheep," and former farmers create
"wooden melons" in the state-run wood-processing plants. The workers in the
state-operated slaughterhouses secretly gorge themselves on animal blood.
Their children are their accomplices: "When their fathers kiss them goodnight,
they smell that they've been drinking blood in the slaughterhouse, and they
want to go there too." As one of the characters of the novels comments,
"Everyone's a villager here. Our heads may have left home, but our feet are
just standing in a different village. No cities can grow in a dictatorship,
because everything stays small when it's being watched."
At one of her readings, Herta Müller recalled that, when she moved from
Nitzkydorf to Temisoara as a fifteen-year-old, she "saw that everything the
village had given me was wrong." As a student, the narrator of the novel
quickly learns that everything the state has given her is wrong as well;
this becomes clear when a dorm mate named Lola commits apparent "suicide"
after becoming a burden to her party-member lover. This lover then leads
the vote to wipe the dead student's name from the party membership rolls.
The narrator meets three male students who do not accept Lola's death as
suicide, and she and they form a band of frightened dissidents who are hounded
by the police and subjected to frequent house searches and terrifying
interrogations. Not even a friendship based on desperation and mutual trust
can protect them; instead, the state places unbearable strains on their
friendship and drives two of them to their deaths.
But the narrator experiences a deeper shock in her inability to comprehend
her women friends. She, like her dorm mates, had feared Lola as a possible
party informant until Lola's death causes the narrator to reexamine her
assumptions and realize that Lola was the true victim of the party. Then
a deep and apparently unshakable friendship with a rebellious, privileged
factory worker named Tereza comes to a shockingly abrupt end when the narrator
discovers that Tereza has agreed to betray her in return for being permitted
a trip to the West. Like a refrain throughout the novel, a recurring dissident
song reminds the narrator that:
Everyone had a friend in every wisp of cloud
that's how it is with friends when the world is full of fear
even my mother said, that's how it is
friends are out of the question
think of more serious things.
It is tempting to read the novel as a roman à clef, and to identify
not only the narrator as Herta Müller, but to associate the other characters
with specific figures: Edgar with Richard Wagner, Georg with Rolf Bossert,
and Kurt with Roland Kirsch. Müller readily admits the similarities,
but points out that the experiences of several members of the Banat literary
circle, or Aktionsgruppe Banat, have been compressed into these three
figures, and that many episodes and character traits in the novel are her
invention. Only the story of Tereza, she has stated, is absolutely true to
Certainly this part of the novel is emotionally the most devastating.
Müller recounts it by again breaking with the chronology of her narrative
and leaping into the future to portray the rupture of the friendship at the
very center of her novel. She then retraces the path to that rupture, and
to Tereza's death from cancer -- a technique that increases the poignancy
of her friend's death and the narrator's pain at her betrayal. The narrator
recalls that, when she was a child, her Nazi father had hacked away at the
milk thistles in the garden, and she had thought, "Father knows something
about life. Because Father stashes his guilty conscience inside the damn
stupid plants and hacks them down." At the close of the novel, the narrator
wonders whether she, too, has learned something about life: "Tereza's death
hurt me so much, it was as if I had two heads smashing into each other. One
was full of mown love, the other of hate. I wanted the love to grow back.
It grew like grass and straw, all mixed up together, and turned into an icy
affirmation on my brow. That was my damn stupid plant." The narrator can
no more exterminate the past than her father could. Furthermore, the
juxtaposition of the betrayal and death of her friend makes Tereza's death
of cancer as much a consequence of living under the Romanian dictatorship
as are the deaths of Lola, Georg, and Kurt.
Ultimately, the narrator and her friend Edgar leave Romania and relocate
in Germany, but they cannot escape the damage the dictatorship inflicted
on its citizens. The novel documents the way that fear erodes the strength
of the individual, by blunting one's senses and destroying one's capacity
for sustained interpersonal relationships. This is a theme with implications
that reach beyond the confines of Ceausescu's police state, for it is an
erosion that occurs wherever one is forced to live under conditions of prolonged
fear. By portraying that erosion through simple, even brutal language cast
upon an elaborate grid of recurring images and songs, Müller has created
a psychological and artistic tour de force. The English translation captures
both the harsh intensity and poetic beauty of the German original.
Beverley Driver Eddy
zurück zu rezensionen