My latest foray for Women in Translation Month is to Germany (but born and bred in Romania) and the 1998 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award Winner, “The Land of Green Plums” by Nobel Prize Winner Herta Muller.
A novel set in Ceausescu’s Romania which follows the lives of our narrator and a number of other “opponents” of the regime. The title comes from the mouth of a former SS guard and the “maker of graveyards”:
You can’t eat green plums, the pits are still soft, and you’ll swallow your death.
Our whole novel has a strong connection to nature with plum trees, mulberry trees, leaf-fleas that eat your childhood and reference after reference to grass and other village activities. Our main characters all being former village inhabitants who have made their way to the city (to study). First off we have Lola, from a drought stricken community, who writes in notebooks that she wants to find a man in a nice white short, who will have his barber personally call on him.
The barber is a reoccurring theme throughout, as the dead don’t need barbers, are they the celebration of being alive? Lola ends up prostituting herself for offal, from abattoir workers, or detergent from the factories:
One stop later, a man would follow Lola out. In his eyes he carried the darkness of the city. And the greedy desire of a starved dog, writes Lola. She didn’t turn around, she walked fast. Leaving the street, she lured the men along the shortest way into the scruffy park. Without a word, writes Lola, I lie down in the grass, and he puts his bag under the longest, lowest branch. There’s no need to talk.
The wind chased the night, and Lola tossed her head silently to and fro, and her belly. Leaves rusted across her face, as they had years before over a six-month-old baby, a sixth child wanted by no one but poverty, and just as then, Lola’s legs were scratched by the twigs. But never her face.
As I wrote when I reviewed Herta Muller’s “The Hunger Angel”, Translator Philip Boehm says “In one novel after the other, it has been Herta Muller’s special calling to find words for the displacement of the soul among victims of totalitarianism. When the words cannot be found, she invents them. And when words do not suffice, she alloys the text with silence, creating striking prose of great tensile strength.” And this novel is another prime example of such style. Sparse, poetic and jumbled sentences give us a fairy tale or dreamlike quality, a unique style:
I had learned how to wander, I walked the streets. I knew the beggars, the wailing voices, the signs of the cross, and the curses, God naked and the devil in rags, the crippled hands and half-legs.
I knew the demented in every part of town.
The man with the black bow tie around his neck, always holding the same withered bouquet. For years he’d been standing by the dry fountain, looking up the street at the other end of which was the prison. When I spoke to him he said: I can’t talk now, she’ll be coming any moment, maybe she won’t recognize me anymore.
She’ll be coming any moment, he’d been saying for years. And sometimes when he said it, someone did come down the street, a policeman or a soldier. As for his wife, the whole city knew she had left prison long ago. She was in the graveyard, in her tomb.
At seven in the morning a column of buses with their gray curtains drawn drove down the street. And at seven at night, it drove back up. The street didn’t actually run uphill, the end of it wasn’t any higher than the square with the fountain. But that’s how people saw it. Or maybe they just said it ran uphill because that’s where the prison was, and only policemen and soldiers ever went there.
As the buses drove past the fountain, you could see the fingers of the prisoners through gaps in the curtains. There was no sound from the moving engines, no revving or rumbling, no brakes or wheels. Only the barking of the dogs. That was so loud, it was as though twice a day dogs on wheels drove past the fountain.
First the horses on high heels, and now the dogs on wheels.
Along with Lola, our narrator, Kurt, Georg and Edgar are all relocated from villages into the city.
When we talked about our mothers, rather than our SS-fathers who had come back from the war, we were amazed that our mothers, who had never met in their lives, all sent the same letters, full of their illnesses.
These “outcasts” form a strong bond and undergo interrogation, mental anguish, paranoia and regular family searches. They decide on a secret code for their letters to each other (once they have moved back to far flung villages), these letters containing shoes, nail-clippers, cold or a comma as opposed to an exclamation mark all having secret meanings. And every letter contains a hair, to see if they’ve been tampered with.
This is a dark, dark, dark, bleak tale of life under a totalitarian regime, a place where you can trust nobody, where the basic human needs are ignored and where disappearances, whether exiled, imprisoned, dead or simply managed to escape is the everyday norm:
Plumsucker was a term of abuse. Upstarts, opportunists, sycophants, and people who stepped over dead bodies without remorse were called that. The dictator was called a plumsucker, too.
A hard novel to decipher, this is more a living, feeling piece, one that is difficult and harsh to read and decipher, giving us the quality of living under a dictator. But there are whole sections that personally I just didn’t understand the meaning:
The alarm clock stopped a little after midnight. The mother doesn’t wake up till almost noon. She winds the alarm clock, it won’t tick. The mother says: Without the alarm clock, there’ll be no morning. She wraps the alarm clock in some newspaper and sends the child to Toni the clockmaker. Toni the clockmaker asks: When do you need it back? The child says: Without the alarm clock, there’ll be no morning.
Then it’s the following day. The mother wakes up just before noon, and she sends the child out to collect the alarm clock. Toni the clockmaker tosses two handfuls of alarm clock into a bowl and says: This one has had it.
On her way home, the child reaches into the bowl and swallows the smallest cog, the shortest rod, the thinnest screw. Then the next-smallest cog….
A novel without chapters, but with distinct sections, the above is a “section”, if you know what it means, please let me know??? Besides the passing of time, only twilight for the mother and youth snatching the morning I have no idea if those themes are correct, absurd or not.
This is a simple example of the “frustration”, the fairy tale like quality, the paradox and mystery that abounds in this novel.
I don’t want to give too much away, however this is a circular novel, no start, no end – if you have read (or do read) this work I’m sure you understand what I mean – but what of the time in between?
A deep deep work from a master of language, one which drags you into a stark, grey world, frustrates you but again enlightens you as to the life under a dictatorship. Give yourself some time and space though, you’re going to need it.