Home is Where the Plums Are

As most of you will have gathered by now, far from being restricted to the big three countries (Germany, Austria and Switzerland), German-language literature comes from a wide area scattered across the heart of Europe.  In the past on my blog, we’ve travelled to Poland and the Czech Republic on our literary travels, and today’s journey takes us back into eastern Europe, for a first look at another country with a German-speaking minority.  Make sure you’re seated – this may be a bumpy ride…

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Herta Müller was fairly unknown in the English-speaking world before her Nobel Prize win back in 2009, but she is fast becoming one of the must-read German-language writers.  Herztier (The Land of the Green Plums) is one of her most famous books and a good one to start with, describing as it does the life of a young woman in Müller’s home country of Romania.  While the novel is fiction, you suspect that there is an awful lot of Müller herself hidden within its pages.

Herztier is narrated by an unnamed woman in her early twenties, a student in ‘the city’ (possibly Bucharest) whose life is changed by the death of one of her university room-mates, Lola.  Lola is flamboyant and carefree, and her morals are rather looser than certain people would like – and in 1980s Romania, standing out in this way is always going to cause trouble.

Lola commits suicide, using the narrator’s belt to hang herself, and is posthumously expelled from the party.  This action is the catalyst for the narrator’s rejection of the system and her friendship with three young men (Edgar, Kurt and Georg) who are also ambivalent about the country they live in.  At first, they enjoy messing around together and thumbing their nose at reality.  Eventually though, real life begins to press down on them, exerting pressure that not all of them will be able to bear…

Herztier is a book about life in a repressive regime, a state where freedom is a distant dream.  Even if daily life is fairly prosaic and uneventful, the knowledge of the potential repercussions of stepping out of line weighs down on the people, effectively rendering themselves self-censored.  An example of this is given when a ‘vote’ is held to determine whether poor Lola should be expelled from the party:

“Der Turnlehrer hob als erster die Hand.  Und alle Hände flogen ihm nach.  Jeder sah beim Heben des Arms die erhobene Arme der anderen an.  Wenn der eigene Arm noch nicht so hoch wie die anderen in der Luft war, streckte so mancher den Ellbogen noch ein bißchen.  Sie hielten die Hände nach oben, bis die Finger müde nach vorne fielen und die Ellbogen schwer nach unten zogen.”
p.35 (Fischerverlag, 2007)

“The P.E. teacher raised his hand first.  And all the hands followed his.  While raising their hands, everyone looked at the raised hands of the others.  If their hand was not quite as high in the air as the others, they straightened their elbow a little more.  They held their hands high until their fingers fell forward, tired, and their elbows drooped heavily downwards.”

Of course, everyone raises their hand – even the narrator…

The writer portrays several ways to live your life, each of them chosen by one of the main characters in the novel.  You can go with the flow and decide to cooperate with the regime, spying on family and friends.  You can ignore it all and live life like an animal, working all day, having sex in the bushes, drinking, fighting and doing it all again the next day.  You can give up on life in your homeland and apply to cross the border, never to see your country again.  Or you can despair of anything ever happening and leave it all behind, once and for all…

While the story can be seen as an attack on the Ceausescu regime in general, though, it can also be read as a description of the treatment of ethnic and linguistic minorities in Communist Romania.  The narrator and her friends are all ethnic Germans, descendants of German-speaking people who settled in the region generations before.  They tease each other with insults about their background, but other people are more serious in their dislike of the ‘outsiders’.  The state is only too keen to pressure them into fleeing the country, leaving their homes and goods behind for ‘real’ Romanians.

Reading Herztier can be a little depressing at times.  There is very little (almost no) joy and laughter, and the writer’s style enhances this feeling of emptiness.  The book consists of short sections moving around in time, most following the narrator’s story, some exploring her childhood in the country, others foreshadowing future events.  The prose is fairly plain on the whole, devoid of any descriptive beauty that might lighten the tone.

Other reviews of this book that I’ve seen have been very mixed, and I can understand why a lot of people aren’t too keen on it.  For me, it’s a novel where the focus is squarely on the content rather than the style, but which still doesn’t have a strong plot driving it forward.  However, that’s a deliberate choice.  Herztier is meant to reflect the place the writer came from – decorating the starkness with pretty words would lessen the effect of the story.

I enjoyed Herztier, but I’m not convinced that Müller will become one of my favourite writers.  I get the feeling that her success is due more to what she says than how she says it, and that (for me) is the wrong way round 😉  Still, she’s definitely a writer I’d like to try again, so if anyone has any suggestions, you know where to leave them.  Comments, please 🙂

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15 thoughts on “Home is Where the Plums Are

  1. I haven't read this particular book, but from all I hear Atemschaukel is probably the best one to start with. I am torn about Herta Muller: on the one hand, she does write some beautiful, thought-provoking stuff (her Nobel acceptance speech was excellent, I thought. On the other hand, she makes me, an ethnic Romanian who grew up in a more Germanic environment, admiring the Germans and their culture, feel uncomfortable. I suspect she was given the Nobel Prize for political reasons, as such prizes usually are. But I do still want to read more of her. So thank you for the review!

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  2. I've had this book for ages, but have never got around to reading it. I'm staring at it now, in fact. And now I think about it, I don't think I'm ever going to read it.

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  3. The only Herta Muller I've read is “The Passport”, a long time ago and it was a strange piece of writing to get to grips with. I understand your point about her Nobel award being more about what she says rather than the quality of the work, but at least she gives a voice to a minoroty, almost forgotten section of German/Romanian society and history. An interesting review, Tony, but I don't understand the translation of the title – odd. I have just posted my review by another Nobel winner – it was hard work and I'm not sure I've written a good review of it.

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  4. Marina Sofia – No worries 🙂 I certainly think that it was a political decision (but then, when isn't it?). I can see why you'd feel uncomfortable – there's a lot of ethnic tension there.

    obooki – I've had books like that (in fact 'Atlas Shrugged' recently departed for the charity shop after four uneventful years on my shelves…).

    Séamus – I'll be interested to hear how you go; it's one that has definitely provided some mixed opinions.

    Sarah – The title comes from an idea the narrator has that everyone has a kind of spirit animal that comes out occasionally ('Herztier' = 'heart animal'). It makes no sense and is Müller's own creation 😉 The English title comes from the way the ever-present police constantly pick green plums off the trees and stuff themselves with them 🙂

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  5. I think this book sounds fascinating and I love that you have looked beyond what some might regard as the usual boundaries of German language works to one taking in Romania. I would be very interested to read this one. I have heard of the author but not read anything by her yet. Thanks for a great review.

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  6. Tony, I sort of worked out what Herztier could have meant – that's the great thing about German, you put words together and make something new! I just didn't understand how Herztier could have become “The Land of the Green Plums” now I get it! Thanks!

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  7. Lindsay – I've definitely tried to spread my reading as far as possible – not everyone knows that a lot of famous 'German' writers come from other countries 🙂

    Sarah – No worries 🙂 The English title has a deeper significance when you read the book – no idea how they came up with it in the first place though…

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  8. Yours and Vishy's are the only favourable reviews so far.
    I'm puzzled because in Germany she is praised for her style which is said to be far more important than the story… I still haven't read it. The German title made me think that she experimenst with language and word combinations. Is that not in the book at all

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  9. I have Appointment, sat on my bookshelves although I can't yet recommend it, as I've yet to read it although it sounds good.
    ” The novel portrays the humiliations of Communist Romania, told from the perspective of a young woman working as a clothing-factory worker who has been summoned by the secret police. She is accused of sewing notes into the linings of men's suits bound for Italy asking that the repicipient marry her to help her get out of the country.”

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  10. Great review, Tony! I liked what you said about German literature extending beyond the borders of Germany, Austria and Switzerland into other parts of Europe. I like the German title of the book. Now I know what that 'heart beast' which the narrator talk about is 🙂 It also reminds me of an Egyptian book that I read recently called 'Maryam's Maze' by Mansoura Ez Eldin in which a spirit companion of the narrator (called 'qarina') comes frequently. I also liked what Marina Sofia said in her comments – it gave a different perspective to the book. Thanks for this wonderful review.

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  11. I ve read three of her books have this one see is quite brutal in her proses at times ,but also has a wonderful eye for imagery I find ,this is my next book by her ,all the best stu

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  12. Caroline – A little, but not so much (I think people are getting carried away with what she calls her books!). In the books I've read recently, Peter Stamm and Birgit Vanderbeke had much more idiosynchratic styles. I'm currently reading 'Berlin Alexanderplatz' – now that's a book with linguistic style 😉

    Gary – I think if you like this kind of story, you'll enjoy her work. I get the feeling that this has brought her prominence though (just as every other book on the IFFP longlist appeared to be about WW2…).

    Vishy – Thanks 🙂 The 'Herztier' in this book reminded some readers more of the patronus from Harry Potter 😉

    Stu – Perhaps that's where her skill lies, not in style but in imagery, the pictures she paints, not flashy prose. Thanks Stu 🙂

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  13. I liked this book and found it to be a chilling depiction of a brutal regime. I also liked the fact that uncomfortable truths like having fathers who were part of the SS were not brushed under the carpet.

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