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Herta Müller: Herztier (The Land of Green Plums)
One of Herta Müller’s favourite themes, in fact perhaps her most common one, is the repression of Eastern European states, primarily Romania, towards their nationals during the Soviet era. This book is probably her best-known example of this theme. The story is narrated by an unnamed young woman living in Romania during the Ceausescu regime.
Initially, she is living in a college, sharing a dormitory with five others including, in particular, Lola. Lola keeps a diary, which the narrator will later see. She comes from a poor region of the country which, the narrator tells us, can be seen in her face. She is different from the other young women and does not really fit it. For example, she happily takes their food and clothing (openly) and thinks this is perfectly normal. In the evenings, she takes the bus out to where the factories are. There she meets the the dirty and tired men coming off their shifts and has sex with them, always without love, sometimes rough. She is also having an affair with the gym teacher. One day, again without asking, she borrows the narrator’s belt and hangs herself. It turns out that she was pregnant, though it is not clear whether it was the gym teacher or one of the factory workers who was the father. Her picture is put up in the college hall as a bad example and she is condemned for her cowardly act and posthumously expelled from the Communist Party (which she had recently joined) and also from the college. It is at this point that the narrator finds Lola’s diary in her trunk. Lola’s body and her bed are removed from the dormitory. The other four in the dormitory want to forget Lola, the narrator does not.
The narrator shares the diary with three male friends, Edgar, Georg and Kurt and, between the four of them, they form a mildly subversive group, critical of the regime. The narrator has observed the goings-on in town and she notices the various insane people who are wandering round, often victims of the regime. For example, she sees a man standing near the road to the prison. When someone tries to speak to him, he says that he cannot speak now, as he is waiting for his wife, who may not recognise him any more. His wife had, in fact, been released from prison some time ago and had subsequently died. The young men have found a hiding place in a summer house in a park, where they hid various things. These include Lola’s diaries, poems written by two of them and photos taken by one of them of the prison buses which go to and fro from the prison, carrying prisoners to work assignments. The buses have curtains, so that the public cannot see the prisoners, though occasionally their fingers can be seen through the cracks in the curtains.
Though they all come from different families and the families do not know one another, the families of the four have similarities. The mothers of the three young men are all dressmakers and all write regularly complaining of being ill. The fathers were all in the SS during the war. The police are clearly suspicious of the three young men and their rooms are searched as are their family homes. In all cases, the parents write to their sons to complain and urge their sons to give up any subversive activities. Even in their dormitories, the young men are attacked by their fellow students but manage to cope quite well with it. Eventually, the narrator’s room is searched.
As well as following their activities, we get a general picture of the grim situation in Romania. There are secret police at every corner, watching. They all seem to eat green plums (hence the English title). (A quick note on the German title. Müller has the habit of inventing German words by combining two nouns, as can easily be done in German. Herztier means, literally, heart animal. It is apparently a Germanisation of the Romanian inimă (= heart) and animal, an invented word referring to the animal we all apparently carry inside us, which determines our character and nature. As this does not really work in English, the English translation has with this, as with other books by Müller, coined something completely different.) As well as Lola’s death, the narrator tells us of the death of her father, who died of an enlarged liver, caused by excessive drinking, a not uncommon activity in the Soviet states. However, pretty well everyone seems to be unhappy and wants to leave the country, except for the dictator and his henchmen and spies. We see old people suffering but we also see the young unhappy, as well.
Our four heroes all go off to poor jobs. Kurt, for example, becomes an engineer at a slaughterhouse, supervising fifteen men, and watches them drink the warm blood. Georg works as a teacher in a school where books are not available and the children draw hearts with chalk. Most of the people in the area work in the sawmills and most are missing some fingers, including the children. The narrator works as a translator in a factory. They are regularly harassed by Major Pjele, a secret service officer, who bullies them but then tells them how lucky they are to have him interrogating them. The narrator becomes friendly with Tereza, who becomes somewhat involved with group but it seems she might be working for Major Pjele. All have desultory love affairs.
Eventually they lose their jobs. Kurt stays behind but the other three all emigrate to Germany but things are not much better there and there is no happy ending. Müller tells a grim story of a grim country, where the people are invariably miserable, living under a totalitarian state and an irrational dictator. There is nothing redeeming and, unlike in some of her other books, not a trace of humour. Müller’s picture of Romania and Romanians under Ceausescu is miserable but superbly told and leaves us in no doubt about the suffering of her people.
First published 1994 by Rowohlt
First English translation by Granta in 1993
Translated by Michael Hofmann