The Appointment by Herta Muller

Honestly, I think Nobel Prize Winner stickers should include the word ‘warning.

Warning: Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. 

Put it in bold face red type as well.  Buyer beware.  Difficult literature ahead.  “Sit bolt upright in that straight back chair and get set,” as Laurie Anderson said in her song “Difficult Listening Hour.”

Herta Muller, born in Romania, lived under the repressive regime of Nicolae Ceausescu.   She lost her job as a teacher because she refused to cooperate with the secret police and eventually emigrated to Berlin in 1987 where she now lives.  She won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2009 for a body of work depicting life under one of the worst communist regimes of the late 20th century.

The Appointmentt is a good book, make no mistake.  The Nobel Prize is not given lightly, which may be part of its problem.  (Can you name an essentially comic writer who’s won it?)    It’s also given for a body of work instead of for a single piece of literature.  Since the entire world is eligible for the award, the entire printed world anyway, the Nobel tends to go to authors who represent the best of a nation, sometimes the best of a language.  Highly significant writers.  Important people.  People who tend to write difficult books.  You won’t find much in the way of easy, entertaining reading.  An author like Philip Roth, who is no slouch, is a controversial choice for the Noble Committee:  he just isn’t serious enough.

All this is a long-winded, round-about way of distracting you before I bring myself to admit that I just couldn’t follow Herta Muller’s The Appointment well enough to write a decent review.  The premise is simple: a woman receives notice from the government that she is to appear at police headquarters for interrogation.  Her crime is putting notes into the pockets of men’s slacks in the factory where she works asking for someone to marry her and take her away from Romania.  The pants, bound for Italy, are intercepted by her boss who turns her in.  During the course of the novel the woman rides the tram from her apartment to the police headquarters.  She observes the people around her as she reviews key events from her own life through an extended series of flashbacks.

I found the extended tram-ride premise wore thin about halfway through the novel and the flashbacks became too difficult to follow since they were not in chronological order.  In my defense, I will point out that this is the basic structure for The Day Last More than a Hundred Years which I reviewed earlier this month and which I’m probably going to put on my yearly list of favorite reads.

I’ve no way of knowing how accurate Ms. Muller’s portrayal of life in Romania under Ceausescu is–I’m willing to take the Nobel Prize committee members recommendation as proof it’s accuracy; they are very serious people–but its is an interesting one.  What struck me was how ordinary everything was. People go to work, ride trams, try to live their lives in an situation of extreme poverty but not in one that felt at all socialist or dictatorial.  A man sells illegal T.V. antennas on the black market but everyone pays rent to a landlord, and works for wages they can save or spend as they choose.  The cast of characters would have felt right at home in a novel by Emil Zola depicting the poorer classes of 19th century France.  It’s not until one takes action to leave the country, even a feeble one like leaving notes in the pockets of soon-to-be-exported pants, that the state begins to clamp down.

For that depiction of life in a totalitarian state, Ms. Muller’s novel is worth the effort.  But make no mistake–effort is required.

You have been warned.

 

I’m not purposely posting articles based on current events in America, but it’s starting to look that way. This is the second Soviet influenced book this week.  I must have been going through a phase back in 2011 when I first posted this review on my old blog Ready Whey You Are, C.B.  

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2 Comments

  1. BookerTalk says:

    If I understand correctly you read this back in 2011. Do you think your attitude towards the Novel winners has changed at all in the intervening years? By that I mean have you discovered any thet were difficult but still enjoyable?
    Part of the problem I suppose is thet because the award is given for a body of work, there is nothing todistinguish between the authors best work and their weakest. They all get to have a sticker.

  2. That is true, it can be difficult to pick out the best or the most accessible work. But the award does tend to go to more difficult reading. I’m not saying this is bad writing at all. In my experience the award winners are very good writers. But their books are hard to read. I just read Patrick Modiano for the first time a few months ago. I should say, tried to read. I got about 40 pages in and had to give up. I really needed thorough footnotes to understand all the references he was making.

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