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Herta Müller: Der Mensch ist ein großer Fasan auf der Welt (The Passport)

Windisch is a miller and a German living in Romania. He wants to leave Romania for West Germany with his wife and daughter, Amalie. In theory, it should be straightforward but, in practice, it is not. There are bribes to be paid and the bribes, in the form of flour and sex, keep going up. The postwoman steals the money for the stamps and the applications do not get sent, while the militiaman, who has to approve the applications, loses them. This short novel consists mainly of a series of vignettes, describing the miserable lives of the Germans still in Romania, wondering whether and, if so, how to get out and, while they are still there, all they can do is to watch the world or, more particularly, their world, slowly crumble.

The life of the village is, to a great event, governed by death. Early on, we meet the watchman whose wife had an affair but later died. He had forgiven her for her affair with the baker but he had not forgiven her for dying so young. Other people, such as the Widow Kroner, die but the old people complain that the young people do not come to funerals anymore. A travelling cooper comes to the village, to repair barrels. On one of his visits, he does not wake up. No-one knows where he comes from or even his name. The old people know when someone is going to die, as an owl sits on the roof of the person about to die.

Windisch is not happy with his marriage. He claims that he does not know what women are for. The watchman concurs. The Jews are the ruin of the world. Jews and women, says the watchman. Windisch has not really forgiven his wife who had to sleep with various men when she was in prison at the end of the war, in order to survive. He himself had been in a camp and his first wife had died in one. He misses his first wife and his second wife misses her first husband, who was killed in the war.

The skinner gets his passport. The skinner’s son is Rudi. He has gone to work in a glass factory in the mountains and has never visited his parents. He is the only German working there. The Romanians are surprised that there are still Romanians in Germany after Hitler. His father visited once and brought back a tear-shaped vase made out of glass as a present for Amalie. The two had been friendly when young, even though Rudi later sexually assaulted Amalie. He will later be interned in a mental institution.

The owl is not the only superstition that remains. Some of the locals believe that there is an apple tree by the church that eats its own apples. They set up a committee to watch it to see if that is the case. The priest is furious and calls in the bishop but the bishop believes that there is a devil in the tree. It is chopped down.

Life is hard for those that remain. Not only is there death, decay and superstition, there is little to do. The workmen, when they get paid, drink for three days and then their money runs out. The young girl has to expose herself for ten lei, to get money. Amalie works as a teacher in the town but it is clear that only she can persuade the militiaman to approve the passport application for her parents. Apart from Rudi, she does have another boyfriend, Dietmar, but he is called up for military service.

It is a grim picture of a grim life. Only escape to Germany offers any hope but then there is understandably a certain amount of apprehension of what life in a foreign country will bring. But, in the meantime, it is death and decay and often bitter memories that are all that there is.

Publishing history

First published 1986 by Rotbuch Verlag
First English translation by Serpent’s Tail in 1989
Translated by Martin Chalmers