Monday, 3 September 2012

Book of the Month: The Passport (Herta Muller)

When Herta Muller was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 2009 the reaction in Romania, the country of Muller’s birth, was one of hostility (and in the English-speaking world was probably: Herta who?).

As has become customary over the past few years, when a European writer no one outside of the author’s borough has heard of, wins the Nobel, a slew of the author’s novels get unleashed on the English speaking world. Since Muller’s Nobel triumph, a number of her novels have appeared in translated form in English.

The first of the novels—although, at just over ninety pages, it is more like a novella—to appear in English was The Passport, originally published in 1986.

The Passport tells the story of Windisch, an ethnic German in the Banat region of Romania, who is more desperate to immigrate to West Germany than Michael Douglas for sex.

Banat, originally a Hungarian province of the Hapsburg Empire, was divided, after the First World War, between Romania and Yugoslavia. It has a sizeable German population, which came to view itself as trapped after the Second World War. The Ceausescu's Communist regime in Romania was said to be particularly vicious because, unlike other Eastern Block Communist dictatorships (for example the GDR), there was no guarantee in Ceausescu’s Romania that you would be left alone even if you behaved. The Germans and the Hungarians, both ethnic minorities in Romania, were said to have suffered disproportionately under Ceausescu. The regime made it so unpleasant for the ethnic Hungarians that many crossed the border and went to Hungary. As for the Germans, the regime allowed them passports and exit visas only after hefty sums were paid.

It is necessary that you know all of the above beforehand if you are to make any sense of what goes on in this strange little novel.

Windisch, a German, is a miller in a dirt-poor Romanian village. He lives with his wife, another ethnic German, who, the reader is informed on more than one occasion, was deported to Russia during the Second World War (along with almost 100,000 Germans), where she survived five harsh Russian winters by (in the words of her daughter) whoring. Windisch and his wife (whose name is Katherine) have a grown up daughter named Amalia, who lives in a nearby town and is a Kindergarten teacher. The village in which Windisch lives seems to be inhabited by other spectral figures, none of whom happy. Windisch’s wife refuses to have sex with him and instead pleasures herself, pulling a ‘slimy finger’ out of her ‘hair’, as Windisch witnesses when he returns home early one day. A joiner in the village grabs his wife between her legs as she bends over a table and her big breasts tremble. The night-watchman of the mill, where Windisch works, talks in his dreams in which he sees an earth-frog that has the flabby thighs of his wife. A skinner in the village has a son, Rudi, who is mentally imbalanced and spends the best part of the year in a sanatorium at the top of the mountains. The truckers in the village give money to a gypsy girl and ask her to lift up her skirt. Not a bunch of people you’d want as your next door neighbour. An apple tree in the church yard sprouts lips and begins eating its own apple. The village seems straight out of a medieval horror story where strange things happen and superstition reigns.

The Germans lead an uneasy co-existence with the Romanians, and there is little love lost between the two communities, which have derogatory epithets for each other. 

Windisch does not want to live in Romania. He wants to immigrate to West Germany. However, he knows that obtaining passports for his family won’t be easy. The palms of the militiaman will need to be greased. The desires of the priest (who issues baptism certificates) will need to be satisfied. Windisch bribes the militiaman over several months with sacs of flour, but gets nowhere. The reason, which the night-watchman helpfully explains to Windisch (although he must have known it at some level), is that the militiaman and priest will not do anything until their lusts are satisfied. ‘Your wife is too old for them,’ the night-watchman tells Windisch. ‘But then,’ he adds gleefully, ‘it will be your daughter’s turn. The priest will make her Catholic and the militiaman will make her stateless.’ Windisch tries to delay it, but eventually bows down to the inevitable. Amalia (who also wants to immigrate) allows herself to be had by the two men and the family gets its passport.

Reading The Passport is akin to watching a surreal film by David Lynch; the whole novel has a dreamlike, unreal quality. It is a curious and often unsettling mixture of the literal and abstract; and the two often intrude in such a way that at times it is not easy to make sense of that which is being conveyed. The narrative lurches from detailed descriptions of, say, a fly flying in a room and settling on hands and faces of various people in the room (including a corpse) to a man walking through a field turning into a black thread (in the mind of Windisch). In-between there are cocks that go blind and young owls that fly into the village. It is all a bit bizarre.

The prose of The Passport is excessively elliptical, which contributes substantially to the opaqueness of the narrative. It is always difficult to get a feel of the style of the prose in a translated piece of work, but, based on what is on display in The Passport, you get the impression that Muller is a writer who writes with minimum of stylistic fuss. The prose is pared down to the bare bones, with several sentences no more than a few words. Some chapters (probably unwittingly) resemble an essay by a precocious primary school pupil.

None of the characters in the novel is particularly noteworthy and stays in your mind, with the possible exception of Amalia, Windisch’s daughter. The hallucinatory quality of the novel makes it difficult for the reader to empathize with them. It is as if you are looking at their lives through an opaque glass.

The novel does not really explain why Windisch (along with some other Germans in the village) is so desperate to immigrate. The village is described in stark terms and the bleakness of the villagers’ existence is conveyed in a manner that forces itself bluntly on the reader’s senses. However, as you read the novel, you also get a sense that Windisch is not an economic migrant; that there is something sinister lurking under the surface that is blighting his existence. To the reader’s irritation, the menace is never fully explained. That’s why, as I have mentioned earlier, unless one is fully cognizant of the political and social situation in Romania under Ceausescu, with specific reference to the German problem, it is impossible to make any sense of what is happening in the novel. The novel was published when Muller still lived in Romania under Ceausescu’s regime, and one wonders whether the censorship to which novels of rebel novelists must have been inevitably subjected to has anything to do with the obliqueness of prose.

Herta Muller, according to the entry on her in WikiPedia, was born in Romania in 1953, and lived there till she was in her mid-thirties. She published her first book in Romania in1982. She attempted to immigrate to West Germany in the mid-eighties, but was denied visa. She eventually managed to immigrate in 1987, and has lived in Berlin since. She believes that she was harassed and persecuted not only by the Ceausescu regime, but also subsequently by the Romanian secret service (when she was living in Germany). A former agent in the Ceausescu regime (who spied on Muller) described her (following her Nobel win) as suffering from psychosis and out of touch with reality. He claimed that Muller’s account of persecution at the hands of the Ceausescu regime was grossly exaggerated. The truth, according to this spy (who admitted to bugging Muller’s house) is that she in fact got away lightly compared with many others. This, the agent claimed, was because Muller was always surrounded by the West German secret service and the regime decided, in the interest of keeping cordial diplomatic relationship with West Germany, to leave her alone.

Be that as it may, if you champion a virtue in literature that seems to have fallen out of fashion these days, namely, clarity; or if you hold the view that the writer should work harder writing a book than the reader does reading it, The Passport is not a novel that will linger in your mind.