Herta Müller: Heute wär ich mir lieber nicht begegnet (The Appointment)
Our unnamed heroine lives in Communist Bucharest. She works in a clothing factory, a job she hates. She lived with her second husband, Paul, who also works in a factory, though an engineering one. We follow her life to date but we also follow one specific event in her life. She has been summoned to see Major Albu of the Secret Service. We gradually learn that she has secreted notes inside the clothes she makes, which are destined for Italy, asking the Italian man who buys the shirt to contact her with a view to marriage. These notes have been discovered and are deemed to be defamatory to Romania and equivalent to prostitution, hence her summons to the Major. It is clear that this is by no means the first time that she has been summoned to see him. As well as following this meeting and its prelude, we also follow her detailed bus journey to the meeting.
The background to her life shows a grim picture of Communist Romania. Her first husband had returned from the war but she did not want him back. He threatened suicide. Her boss is Nelu. Before she meets Paul, Nelu takes her with him on a trip to purchase buttons. It is soon clear that his purpose in inviting her was purely sexual. She does sleep with him but makes it clear that, when they return, that is the end of it. Nelu is vindictive and she is sure that it is he who has found the notes and it is he who fabricates the notes to French and Swedish customers that she is later accused of planting, but which she denies. Her husband seems a decent man, on the whole, but he is an alcoholic. As he says, he does not drink because he needs it but because he likes it. It seems, though there is no evidence for this, that Nelu’s revenge against our heroine extends to Paul. On several occasions, when he is showering after work, his clothes disappear and he has to return home (on his motorbike) in borrowed clothes. Finally, he is knocked off his motorbike by a mysterious grey lorry.
They try to supplement their income by selling things at the flea market. Paul manufactures TV aerials that can pick up TV signals from outside Romania while our heroine tries to sell her jewellery. Paul has been using materials that he has stolen from work and he is caught. As this is happening, we follow her bus journey to the meeting with the Major. There are not many people on the bus. There is the lady who has no glasses as hers are broken and she cannot get replacement lens. She wants to goto the market but the driver is not going to help her. There is the woman chewing cherries but not eating all of the cherry. We follow the bus journey but we are not sure that, by the end, it has got there.
Whenever she goes to see Major Albu, he kisses her hand or, rather, slobbers over it. She finds this repulsive and, anticipating it, she practises evasive techniques with Paul whenever she has an appointment on the next day. She has been warned but still she is summoned and questioned by the Major. One day, when she was being interviewed by the Major, she had gone to the toilet but had been made to leave her handbag. Next day she finds a human finger in it.
But this is not her only hardship. She had a good friend, Lilli. Lilli had had a long sexual affair with her stepfather when younger. She had had a series of unsatisfactory relationships since, though she is attractive, till she meets an older army officer. They plan to escape from Romania. They are caught. When younger, our narrator herself had found her father having a sexual relationship with a girl with whom she was at school, who was married and had children.
It is a grim tale of life in Communist Romania, where just getting by is a struggle, and where people are desperate to get out but cannot easily do so. Alcohol helps. With only a few exceptions, everyone seems unpleasant. The old die off and no-one misses them and no-one mourns them. As she says at the end, The trick is not to go mad.
First published 1997 by Rowohlt
First English translation by Metropolitan Books in 2001
Translated by Michael Hulse and Philip Boehm