Thursday, December 03, 2009

The Passport by Herta Müller

Herta Müller won the Nobel Prize for Literature this year, and Serpent's Tail, maybe in celebration, have just republished The Passport. They have very kindly sent me a copy.

It was first written in 1986 and first published in English in 1989. It is a short book, just 92 pages, but each page is so intensely and exquisitely written that if it were any longer it would lose some of its power. Much is left deliberately left unexplained for the reader to invent. All my favourite books require energy and a little commitment to keep going, but they are worth every calorie and every second. I read The Passport in short bursts over a couple of days, having to pick it up again just as urgently as I had had to put it down. It became a little like an addiction, and in the end I had to reach the end before I could do anything else.

Herta Müller writes about life in a German village in Romania under the Ceausescu's regime. The village miller wants to emigrate to Germany, but for this he needs a passport, and in order to get one he has to bribe the militia and the clergy for relevant certificates, but unfortunately they are not interested in his sacks of flour and demand something more precious.

The prose is surreal, dark and breathtakingly beautiful. Layers are applied masterfully, rather like an artist applies paint to a picture and gradually the place, the characters and their motivations acquire a solidity and convincing authenticity.
'By the tiled stove the clock has struck a long white patch against the wall. Windisch closes his eyes. "Time is at an end." he thinks. He hears the white patch of the clock ticking and sees a clock face of black spots. Time has no clock hand . Only the black spots are turning. They crowd together . They push themselves out of the white patch. Fall along the wall. They are the floor. The black spots are the floor in the other room.'

To me that scene, with its Daliesque clock, evokes a sense of displacement and confusion with an inspiring economy.

Looking at Herta Müller's biography on Wikipedia I see that she has used her own experiences in her novel. Herta Müller's mother, for instance, like Windisch's wife, was sent to a Labour camp in Soviet Russia. The experience both formed and destroyed the character in the book, and it is only when it is described that we learn the wife's first name: Katharina. In order to survive she had to bribe those in control with her body - an option no longer open to her because she is too old. Her daughter, Amalie, however, is younger.

From the evidence of the number of reviews of Herta Müller's work on the internet it appears to be little read. This seems to me to be a great shame. I hope the Nobel Prize causes her work to garner more attention. In my opinion it deserves it.

There is an interesting article on Herta Müller here, in the New York Times (hat tip Tea Traveler).