The Land of Green Plums, Herta Muller, Metropolitan Books, 1996, (originally published in Germany as Herztier by Rowohlt Verlag, translated from the German by Michael Hofmann), 242 pp
I read this for my Literary Snobs reading group, in which a friend and I read only novels written by Nobel Prize winners. One really has to be a literary snob to get through this challenging read.
It is a story about the trauma and political oppression under which four young people lived in Romania. After WWII, Romania was taken over by a communist dictatorship. President Nicolae Ceausescu was considered the most Stalinist government leader in Eastern Europe, responsible for years of the suppression of freedom of expression, violence, imprisonment and execution. The atmosphere made friendship virtually impossible because betrayal was a way of life.
The female narrator and her three male friends are all of German descent, grandchildren of Germans who had immigrated to Romania as farmers after WWI. They are now suspect in the country because some were Nazis during the second World War, but if they emigrate back to Germany are still cultural outcasts viewed suspiciously as not German but Eastern European.
We never learn the narrator's name but she, Edgar, Kurt and Georg have all left their rural homes and families for the city in order to study Russian and try to find jobs. They each witness suicides and disappearances of other students and coworkers. They meet in coffeehouse courtyards and talk in a sort of code. When they mail letters to each other they enclose a hair. If the letter arrives without a hair they know it has been read by censors.
The sense of dread grows ever more dark as the story progresses toward the decision each must make: stay at risk of imprisonment and death or return to Germany without any hope of employment. In between the various incidents of their daily lives are the narrator's flashbacks to her childhood in the country as well as desperate letters from her mother begging her to return home.
The plot is thin, the writing poetic and dreamy, bordering on nightmarish. My experience of reading this novel was a struggle to read even ten pages in a sitting and the feeling of a heavy weight sitting on my chest. Still, I am not sorry I read it because I feel it necessary to grasp what life is like for people under oppression. Understanding what that is like and how human beings do or do not survive it seems to me to be part of my participation in being human.
Herta Muller won the Nobel Prize in 2009. She has written many novels, at least nine of which have been translated into English. She was born in Romania of German parents in 1953, lived under the Ceausescu dictatorship, emigrating to Germany in 1987. She is a survivor who lived to tell the tale. I may read her again. Novels I have read recently (The Shadow Land, Pachinko, Do Not Say We Have Nothing) tell similar stories but are written in a more Western style. Muller's Eastern European style carries an emotional integrity not found as fully in those other novels. As a Western/American reader I need both styles.
(The Land of Green Plums is available in both hardcover and paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)