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The Passport by Herta Müller

November 8, 2011 26 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.

German Literature Month in November: my selection

September 28, 2011 22 comments

After a moment of hesitation, I decided to participate to the German Reading Month hosted by Caroline (Beauty Is A Sleeping Cat) and Lizzy (Lizzy’s Literary Life). It will take place in November and will overlap my EU Book Tour project. After Dutch literature in June, German-speaking literature in November.

I’m not well read in German literature. When I think of the German books I’ve read and loved, most of them are by Austrian or Czech writers (Zweig, Kafka, Schnitzler, Rilke). Honestly, I wasn’t thrilled by the few books from Germany I’ve read so far. The Sorrows of the Young Werther by Goethe? Romanticism isn’t my cup of tea. Mademoiselle de Scudéry by E.T.A. Hoffmann? Not a remarkable landmark in my reading history. The Left Handed Woman by Peter Handke? Brr, terrible experience. Death in Venice by Thomas Man? I can’t recall a single thing from the plot. And I didn’t even remember I had read The Lost Honor of Katarina Blum until I started investigating Heinrich Böll for this event.

I think this was all bad luck and I’m sure there must be German books I will enjoy. I never picked up the right ones, that’s all. Anyway, I looked for the German books on my shelves and on my wish lists. I’m terribly lazy, so I eliminated big books and here is the dream list.

Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane (1895)

Caroline and Lizzy organize a readalong. I’ll probably read it at my own pace. Sorry Caroline and Lizzy, but reading determined chapters each week sounds like school and I’m not up for it. But I’m really interested in discovering Effi Briest.

 

 

Un mariage à Lyon by Stefan Zweig, a French collection of short stories including:

German Title

French Title

English Title

Die Hochzeit von Lyon (1927) Un mariage à Lyon A Wedding in Lyon (*)
Im Schnee (1901) Dans la neige In the Snow (*)
Das Kreuz (1906) La Croix The Cross (*)
Geschichte eines Untergangs (1910) Histoire d’une déchéance Twilight
Die Legende der dritten Taube (1916) La légende de la troisième colombe The Legend of the third Dove (*)
Episode am Genfer See (1919) Au bord du lac Léman By Lake Léman (*)
Der Zwang (1916) La Contrainte Constraint (*)

(*) I have no idea of the English title used by publishers, so I added the literal translation of the German title. I’ll never thank enough French publishers for sticking to literal translations of book titles most of the time. For a review of Twilight, read Guy’s post here.

Lettres à Lou Andreas-Salome by Rainer Maria Rilke

This small book is a collection of letters Rilke wrote to his beloved Lou Andreas-Salome. I love Rilke. There’s nothing else to say. I’m looking forward to this bath in his soothing and wise prose. I also enjoy that collection of tiny books by Mille et Une Nuits. I have other titles from it and they’re always enchanting. I owe them a great translation of Ovide.

 

Hotel Savoy by Josef Roth (1924)

I’ve had in mind to read a book by Josef Roth for a while and this one seems just great.

Beton by Thomas Bernhard (1982)

The English title is Concrete and the French one Béton. I added it to my TBR after Guy’s review. You can read it here.

 

 

 

Der Mensch ist ein grosser Fasan auf der Welt by Herta Müller (1994).

The French title is the translation of the German, L’homme est un grand faisan sur la terre. The English title, The Passport, is totally invented by the publisher. Indeed, the original title means Man is a great pheasant on the earth, which is much more intriguing in my opinion. I was intrigued by the title and interested in reading a book by the Nobel Prize Winner of 2009. 

 

Ruhm: Ein Roman in neun Geschichten by Daniel Kehlmann (2009)

The English title is Fame: A Novel in Nine Episodes. The French title is Gloire. I expect a lot of fun with this collection of short stories by an Austrian writer. Another reading idea I owe to Guy. Here is the link to his review.

 

 

I wanted to try another Heinrich Böll but I wasn’t tempted the blurbs of the books available in paperback. Ooops.Now that I look at my list again, I realize I’m not going to discover a lot of books from Germany. Tant pis. Of course, I’m not sure I’ll be able to read all this in time but I’ll try. Most of the books are short.

If anyone has read one of these, I’m interested in your take.

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