Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Appointment

Herta Müller won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2009. I recently had the opportunity of reading her novel called 'The Appointment' and it struck me how keen and perceptive people can still be in spite of having suffered mind-numbing violence. The Nobel Laureate is a Romanian born German writer whom the Swedish Academy described as someone who "with the frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed." In 'The Appointment' she describes life in Romania under the oppressive regime of Nicolae Ceausescu. The narrative is so skillfully woven that the fabric of violence unfolds itself without the need of graphic description or a fast paced gripping plot.  Müller's litotic style thrives on understatement and it is perhaps in the seeming banality of her descriptions that she poignantly captures the devastation of violence. "Müller scatters narrative bombshells across a field of dreams" commented the San Francisco Chronicle. It is perhaps only Müller who can write in a way as to take on bombshells and dreams in the same stride. Her words are latent with the pain and the irreversible damage caused by violence to the spirit of being human.
Nicolae Ceausescu, who was imprisoned countless times during his youth for anti-fascist activities and for being a part of the then illegal Communist Party, had already established a firm base for a life in politics even as he became a protege of Gheorghe Gheorgiu-Dej, his political predecessor. Later Ceausescu went on to become the Secretary General of the Romanian Communist Party from 1965 to 1989. He also became the Council of State and the President of Romania from 1974 to 1989. His first decade in power was marked with a pro Western policy; in fact Romania was the first Communist country to recognize West Germany and the first to receive a US President, Richard Nixon. Romania and Yugoslavia were also the only East European countries that became part of trade agreements with the European Economic Community before the fall of the Communist bloc. However,
his tactics became increasingly totalitarian after the proposition of his July Theses which marked the reign of terror and ushered in the coercion of ideology with violent authoritarian measures that resulted into massive killings and torture of thousands of people.

'The Appointment', first published in 1997 and translated into English in 2001 by Michael Hulse and Philip Boehm, takes place as an interior monologue of an unnamed female narrator on a tram ride to an appointment with Major Albu, an arm of the dictatorship. She has been summoned, not for the first time, under suspicion of being an informant as she has pressed notes in the coats of Italians asking them to marry her. She claims however that she did this only to be able to go out of the country by marrying a foreigner. The narrative has a structure similar to, what comes first to my mind, R K Narayan's 'Guide.' The themes and issues concerned are poles apart and even the style is very different but the technique of narrative alternation between the present and the past is a common device. Müller describes the passengers of the tram, a man with a gash on his head indicating that he too has seen violence at close quarters. His child licks window panes and digs noses for snot but the man does not reprimand or scold him; cultural etiquette is perhaps not so important in a time when living itself is painful.

Müller intersperses the description of the other passengers getting on and alighting the tram--an old lady, a man with a briefcase, even the driver-- with memories of childhood, a crippled boy with whom she used to play in the dust in her childhood, her first husband and her father in law who wanted to replace him during the war. She remembers her beautiful friend Lilli who was caught trying to escape the border with her old lover and shot, her body torn to pieces by hounds. Her lover who could have been her father, did not share Lilli's fate. He was imprisoned.  She describes him as someone who "saw too much and was blinded. He risked Lilli who meant more to him than reason can bear." Müller also describes her sessions with Major Albu, who always begins interrogation by slobbering over her hand-- a thing which she detests wholeheartedly and which wrecks her nerves so that she has to eat a walnut to calm  herself whenever she has been summoned. Müller's unnamed heroine works in a clothes factory and lives with her lover Paul at his apartment which is under constant surveillance by the dictatorial government. Even her moments of intimacy with Paul, her bike rides on his red Java to the bean fields, and her time of "ass backward happiness" as she calls it, is full of undercurrents of the violence that invades their lives and makes living so bare and skeletal.

The bare, sparse emotional landscape that is described throughout the novel is intense and heart wrenching even as Müller achieves the miracle of never breaking into lamentation or graphic description. Even the few lines of songs that she quotes add to the poignancy of her world and end up seeming tragic even when she catches a rare glimpse of happiness. Even the gruesome episode of Major Albu slipping a human finger with a blue nail "wrapped like a candy" in the narrator's bag when she has gone to the washroom, is full of understatement. The protagonist finds a parcel that does not belong to her and, on opening it, she spots a severed human finger. The horror of such an experience is related almost in a staccato manner as if the narrator found it too painful to dwell on it, even for a literary purpose. Her father's affair with another woman at the bus depot, her mother's attachment to her dead son because of whom she wanted a second child, her first husband who almost strangled her to death on a bridge above a river, all add up to create a kind of ghost world, where people don't really live but only deal with the pain of existence. As she says: "I have frequently forgotten how to sleep, and have had to relearn each time." Everyone has suffered and everyone that she thinks of or remembers has had his or her own share of horror. Even the communist officer, whom she calls the Perfumed Commissioner, distributes wealth from the rich and give it to the poor, but breaks down when his white horse is poisoned. Communism seems to be replete with an austerity that strips a human being of the  necessity to love. It inflicts pain on the commands of one man's whim and a whole society of people become nothing but ghosts of their own selves. They do not live lives but memories, memories of the past, of loss, of mindless terror and devastation that leaves no place for any human warmth or fellow feeling. 'The Appointment' is a very beautiful book in spite of the ugly terror it deals with. Müller's keen perception into human thought and feeling is insightful at every step and commands immense admiration for the sheer breadth of its vision.

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