The Passport by Herta Müller

November 8, 2011 Leave a comment Go to 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.

  1. November 8, 2011 at 4:04 am

    Seems you felt about the same way as I did about the book. I read somewhere that the problem was in the translation. I’ll never know…

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    • November 8, 2011 at 10:06 am

      Yes. She’s good but she’s not my cup of tea.

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  2. November 8, 2011 at 8:32 am

    I start to be seriously intrigued by Herta Müller. I got Herztier (The Land of Green Plums?). I like this type of writing but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t be bored as well. Hard to say if it is the translation. I won’t be able to tell as I will read the original. Usually when a writer is very hard in German he/she goes down better in English… I’m in for a treat…
    Is The Passport an earlier one? I think Stu mentioned her early prose was different.
    I have a feeling that Herta Müller put herself into the book. Have you sen her in interviews? She seems… “durch den Wind” – rattled?.

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    • November 8, 2011 at 10:19 am

      Let’s start a game: find the corresponding English titles of Müller’s books. They are so different that guessing is difficult. Maybe the bloggers who reviewed The Land of Green Plums can tell you the original title. I wish we all put the original titles in our reviews.

      I don’t think there’s a problem with the translations. She sounds similar in English and in French and I don’t see why she should sound different in German. You might like her. In a way, she sounds like Marguerite Duras in L’Amour or Le Ravissement de Lol V Stein. You like Duras. I didn’t like these two books.

      I have a feeling she put herself into the book too. I can’t help wondering what she had to do to get her passport. Is she Amalia? She’s a Müller (miller) daughter after all… I haven’t seen her interviews. Not sure I’m interested.

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  3. November 8, 2011 at 9:56 am

    Difficult? Gifted? Painful? Must try it 😉

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    • November 8, 2011 at 10:20 am

      Hello, thanks for visiting.
      I hope you’ll like it more than me. I’ll read your review.

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  4. November 8, 2011 at 12:13 pm

    I seem to be one of the rare bloggers who always indicates both titles. I would be glad if more did it.
    I just started Herztier (will not read it at present). I love her way with words, like a long poem but the story is very depressing from the beginning.
    I’m sure Tony would like it. Btw he reviewed Flagman Thiel and did compare it to Hardy.

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    • November 8, 2011 at 3:08 pm

      That makes two of us. It’s because we read in different languages.

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  5. November 8, 2011 at 3:06 pm

    I can think of no more damning thing to say of any book than that it bored me.

    Well, maybe one or two things, but not much. It’s hard to get much from a book that bores.

    There are marvellous books with fractured language, poetic phrasing and unintuitive structures. That’s not what concerns me here. It’s the relentlessness of it. It seems incredible.

    Does this village really have no small moments of kindness? No redeeming qualities? That seems so unlikely, that there should be nothing. It makes it sound monotonal.

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    • November 8, 2011 at 3:19 pm

      I didn’t like her style but I can’t understand that someone else will find it beautiful or haunting.
      I’m not against like you say “unintuitive structure”. I’ve just re-read Gros Câlin (“Big Hug”) by Romain Gary and you can’t imagine what he’s doing with French words.
      Like “I was somewhere else, with my smile, who was pleased to see me again”. I don’t even know how I’m going to translate the quotes I want to use in my review.
      But it’s funny, not sinister.
      The only positive thing in this book is that Windisch loves his daughter. Otherwise, nothing. Maybe it’s what it does to people, to live in a dictatorship.

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  6. November 8, 2011 at 7:40 pm

    I think my version was The Passport.

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    • November 8, 2011 at 11:39 pm

      You probably have the same version as Lisa.

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  7. November 12, 2011 at 11:35 am

    I got through this but it was a real struggle. Her worldview is so black and her characters so one-dimensional. Language is (I suppose?) the main dynamic in her work, but the images failed to move me. All in all, I did not think she was an author I’d rush to read again!

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    • November 12, 2011 at 1:19 pm

      I thought you’d like her more than me. I agree, the characters lack nuances and the description of the environment too.

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  8. November 26, 2011 at 2:21 am

    Of course there are those who really loved this novel…

    Having read both sides I’m not sure now. The language sounds painfully inpenetrable. But there is always some satisfaction in surmounting a challenge so I hope to get around to this novel eventually.

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    • November 26, 2011 at 9:40 am

      I’m interested in your review. It’s a short book, you don’t commit to read a huge novel if you don’t like it.

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  9. December 8, 2011 at 2:48 am

    I am one the other side of the fence and having read other of her books can say this isn’t the very best translation of her work ,but think lot of what people struggle with is the odd imagery is maybe just her way of writing ,I did like the feeling of not belonging she gives not in romania and not being fullt german I worked with some german turks in germany and some of them felt that way ,hope you try her again I m sure you may find one you like ,all the best stu

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    • December 8, 2011 at 10:03 am

      Her style is really a put off for me. I think you can express powerful ideas or emotion through simple words. Her imagery is too complicated for me, I don’t fall for it. But like I said, she’s a gifted writer.

      I agree with you about “not belonging”, it’s a feeling often expressed by immigrants. They don’t belong to their old country in a way and are seen as foreigners in their new one. What’s different in this book is that the Germans in Romania look down on the Romanians. I can’t tell if it’s the real feeling of that community or if she made it for the book.

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  10. December 22, 2015 at 5:17 pm

    I can completely understand the difficulties of many readers with The Passport but I loved this book very much. And it was exactly her style that impressed me most in this book. (In German it sounds indeed very different especially since the translation is not the best). Reading her books is a sometimes difficult and challenging experience, but it is without doubt great literature and I admire her for this and some other books. My own review: http://www.mytwostotinki.com/?p=791

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    • December 22, 2015 at 10:41 pm

      I’m under the impression that German doesn’t translate that well into French.

      H. Müller is definitevely not my kind of read. I don’t like that kind of style and I’m not rushing to read another of her books. I have a hard time appreciating books that are bleak and hopeless because the writer decided that bleak it would be. There isn’t anything positive here and the atmosphere is perpetually dark. (This is also why I didn’t like Housekeeping by M. Robinson)

      That said, she has her own voice with a peculiar style that can’t leave the reader indifferent. I suspect it’s either love or hate and that there’s no space for lukewarm.

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  1. November 30, 2011 at 10:13 am
  2. December 1, 2011 at 7:06 am
  3. January 1, 2012 at 1:10 am
  4. March 8, 2016 at 10:42 pm
  5. June 11, 2017 at 9:29 pm

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