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The Passport by Herta Müller

November 8, 2011 27 comments

The Passport by Herta Müller. 122 pages. 1986.

How can I describe this? Consistent with the idea I had of Romania under Ceaucescu. My apologies to potential Romanian readers, but it’s true.

Herta Müller wrote The Passport in 1986, before she left Romania to immigrate to Western Germany. She’s a Romanian writer of the German speaking minority. (Do they also have the German nationality? That would explain that only a passport was needed to immigrate). The short biography in my French edition indicates she left because the regime was after her.

The original title, Der Mensch ist ein grosser Fasan auf der Welt, means The Man Is a Grand Pheasant on the Earth. The English title, The Passport, reflects the thin plot of the book, a man named Windisch and his desperate quest for a passport to immigrate in Germany. The original title reflects Müller’s incomprehensible but poetical style. Indeed, some paragraphs are made of words I all knew individually but had never seen put together in that particular order. Hence a feeling of being lost in an ocean of words and poetical images. Here are examples. (my translation)

Windisch feels the water giggle in his shoes.

Windisch feels the grain of sand in his skull. He makes it go to and fro from temple to temple.

The wind beats against the wood. It sews. The wind sews a bad in the ground.

Jesus sleeps on the cross besides the church door. When he wakes up, he’ll be old. The air in the village will be lighter than his naked skin.

Her prose is made of apple trees which swallow their apples (a metaphor for Communist countries?), of owls who circle around the houses of the dying, of crazy watermelons. And of course, there’s the “modernist” or “post-modernist” or whatever-the-term affectation:

The mill is silent. The walls are silent and the roof is silent. And the wheels are silent. Windisch has pressed the switch and put out the light. Between the wheels it is night. The dark air has swallowed the flour dust, the flies, the sacks. (translated by Martin Chalmers)

True, she writes well in sharp sentences full of images. I wonder how it sounds in audio version, by the way. The experience was moony which echoes the French cover of the novel. After passing through the curtain of unintelligible paragraphs, I could see the frame of the picture she wants to describe, a village in German-speaking Romania. Well, that’s not a place you’d want to stay.

Though it’s not said, the reader understands it takes place after the war, the wounds of the period still unhealed. Windisch and his wife Katharina got married after the war, when they came back to the village. He was in detention; she was in working camps in Russia. They got married not because they were in love but because they were alive whereas their legitimate fiancés, Barbara and Joseph, weren’t. Barbara died in Russia. Joseph never came back from the war. The door to the war time is ajar, enough for the reader to understand the horror of the experience, the violence, the cold, the hunger.

Everything in this village is repulsive. The villagers are nasty, racist, corrupt and illiterate. There is no warmth, no solidarity. None of them has a redeeming quality. To get a passport, the female relative (wife or daughter) must sleep with the clergyman to get the birth certificate, with the policeman to get the other official papers. The post-office clerk drinks the money of stamps and doesn’t process the sending of the letters. The mayor is corrupt too. You need to bribe in money or in kind (food or sex) at every stage of the process to get the precious key to freedom.

Racism is everywhere. The villagers want to live in Germany but despise the Germans. They say their women are worse than their worse women. They feel superior to their fellow Romanian citizens; they don’t consider themselves as Romanian, don’t speak the language and don’t intend to. You sure understand that a marriage between a Romanian and a German would be frowned upon, if not impossible. There’s hatred between the communities, the Romanians resent the condescendence of the German minority. Of course they’re anti-Semitic and also gossip about the Baptist community. Some villagers are wacked. Is it a consequence of consanguinity? Windisch’s wife is as ignorant as can be: when her daughter Amalia tells her she’s on the pill, she asks if she’s ill and needs pills. All in all, everything is depressing in this book.

As an aside, I’m wondering if there’s a connection between Windisch and Herta Müller. Windisch is a miller (Müller in German). Is he the author’s avatar? Hopefully not.

It’s a short book I almost abandoned page 39 and kept reading because it was short. I was bored; the prose put me off-balance at first and just put me off at last. I can see that Herta Müller is a gifted writer but that kind of prose isn’t for me. Genius for some, painful experience to me.

For a positive review, read Lisa’s take here.

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