The hardships and humiliations of Communist Romania are on display in this taut
novel by the winner of the European Literature Prize (Müller, author of the
well-received Land of Green Plums, emigrated to Berlin after being persecuted by
the Romanian secret police). The narrator, an unnamed young dress-factory worker
of the post-WWII generation, has been summoned for questioning by the secret
police; she has been caught sewing notes into men's suits destined for Italy,
with the desperate message "marry me" along with her address. Accused of
prostitution in the workplace (and told she is lucky the charge is not treason),
she loses her job, and her life becomes subject to the whims of Major Albu, who
summons her for random interrogation sessions. Her major preoccupation is
holding on to her sanity.
This is a nearly impossible feat in a society where
opportunity is limited, trust is a commodity as scarce as decent food or shoe
leather, and even sinister Party henchmen are shown to be trapped in a
ridiculous charade. As she travels to a questioning session, the woman spools
out the tale of her past: her attempt to achieve independence after a first
marriage, only to hastily fall into a second one with Paul, an alcoholic who
fashions illegal television antennas for the black market; and her friendship
with the beautiful and doomed Lilli, a fellow factory worker.
generational divide following the war and the dreadful ways in which people
learn to cope with the Communist regime are threaded throughout—as are some
lighter moments, shaky though they may be. Appropriately disorienting and
tightly wound, this perfectly controlled narrative offers a chilling picture of
human adaptation and survival under oppression.
A Romanian-born resident of Berlin, Muller, whose novel The Land of Green Plums won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Prize, here tells the grim story of a woman repeatedly summoned by Major Albu, a government flunky intent on determining whether she is a traitor to the state. Her crime? Sewing handwritten notes into the pockets of the men's slacks she makes at her factory job, listing her name and contact information and imploring the purchaser to marry her so that she can flee the repressive Ceausescu. While the protagonist's pleas are intercepted and ineffectual, Muller's message to her readers is not. Indeed, her depiction of life in Communist Romania forces readers to feel tremendous antipathy for the repressive regime. Palpably bitter, Muller crafts a world in which alcoholism, violence, corruption, and personal betrayal are routine. As the woman's grandfather declares, "Life was wet fart, not even worth the bother of putting your shoes on." This tone permeates the book, making it both bleak and overwhelming. Still, it is recommended for public and academic libraries and for those interested in understanding the effects of government oppression. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 5/1/01.] Eleanor J. Bader, Brooklyn, NY Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Romanian-born Müller (The Land of Green Plums, 1996, etc.) now lives in Berlin, having successfully fled after running afoul of the Ceausescu regime. Here, she offers a grim portrait of totalitarian life's squalor and pain. A young woman has been "summoned" to appear "at ten sharp" before the greasy Major Albu for another of several interrogations-sessions that can be cruel physically and are always so emotionally. The reason? The young woman, it seems, working at the time (she's now been fired) in a factory that makes clothing for export, tucked notes-saying "marry me"-into the pockets of a number of pairs of pants destined for Italy. She would rather live in Italy? She doesn't believe in her own country? She wouldn't have been summoned at all if she'd agreed to keep sleeping with her despicable boss Nelu-who, upon rejection, trumped up tales of pants-pocket notes to France and Sweden also. To top it off, now the man she's living with, Paul, has been run off the road on his motorcycle, and his side-business of making TV aerials (so people can tune in Bulgaria) has been trashed and he's been fired from his factory job. On top of the gratuitous and frightening harassment, there's the rundown squalor of life-a row of dusty glass eyes in a pharmacy window, an apartment building called "the leaning tower" because it isn't built straight, much drunkenness, empty lots, shabby trams with no "fixed schedule." And there's the past: a first husband who out of weakness almost kills his young wife; the promiscuous best friend Lili, who, trying to flee the country, is attacked-and devoured-by dogs; grandparents sent to the camps while their land was expropriated; a sadistic father-in-lawwho in earlier years, as "the Perfumed Commissar," was in charge of local expropriations. Says the young woman, on her way to Major Albu (the whole novel is "told" during one tram ride), "The trick is not to go crazy." Sensitive, observant, unrelenting-and compelling.
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I’ve been summoned. Thursday, at ten sharp.
Lately I’m being summoned more and more often: ten sharp on Tuesday, ten sharp on Saturday, on Wednesday, Monday. As if years were a week, I’m amazed that winter comes so close on the heels of late summer.
On my way to the tram stop, I again pass the shrubs with the white berries dangling through the fences. Like buttons m a d e of mother-of-pearl and sewn from underneath, or stitched right down into the earth, or else like bread pellets. They remind me of a .ock of little white-tufted birds turning away their beaks, but they’re really far too small for birds. It’s enough to make you giddy. I’d rather think of snow sprinkled on the grass, but that leaves you feeling lost, and the thought of chalk makes you sleepy.
The tram doesn’t run on a .xed schedule.
It does seem to rustle, at least to my ear, unless those are the stiff leaves of the poplars I’m hearing. Here it is, already pulling up to the stop: today it seems in a hurry to take me away. I’ve decided to let the old man in the straw hat get on ahead of me. He was already waiting when I arrived—who knows how long he’d been there. You couldn’t exactly call him frail, but he’s hunchbacked and weary, and as skinny as his own shadow. His backside is so slight it doesn’t even .ll the seat of his pants, he has no hips, and the only bulges in his trousers are the bags around his knees. But if he’s going to go and spit, right now, just as the door is folding open, I’ll get on before he does, regardless. The car is practically empty; he gives the vacant seats a quick scan and decides to stand. It’s amazing how old people like him don’t get tired, that they don’t save their standing for places where they can’t sit. Now and then you hear old people say: There’ll be plenty of time for lying down once I’m in my cof.n. But death is the last thing on their minds, and they’re quite right. Death never has followed any particular pattern. Young people die too. I always sit if I have a choice. Riding in a seat is like walking while you’re sitting down. The old man is looking me over; I can sense it right away inside the empty car. I’m not in the mood to talk, though, or else I’d ask him what he’s gaping at. He couldn’t care less that his staring annoys me. Meanwhile half the city is going by outside the window, trees alternating with buildings. They say old people like him can sense things better than young people. Old people might even sense that today I’m carrying a small towel, a toothbrush, and some toothpaste in my handbag. And no handkerchief, since I’m determined not to cry. Paul didn’t realize how terri.ed I was that today Albu might take me down to the cell below his of.ce. I didn’t bring it up. If that happens, he’ll .nd out soon enough. The tram is moving slowly. The band on the old man’s straw hat is stained, probably with sweat, or else the rain. As always, Albu will slobber a kiss on my hand by way of greeting.
Major Albu l i f t s my hand by the .ngertips, squeezing my nails so hard I could scream. He presses one wet lip to my .ngers, so he can keep the other free to speak. He always kisses my hand the exact same way, but what he says is always different:
Well well, your eyes look awfully red today.
I think you’ve got a mustache coming. A little young for that, aren’t you.
My, but your little hand is cold as ice today—hope there’s nothing wrong with your circulation.
Uh-oh, your gums are receding. You’re beginning to look like your own grandmother.
My grandmother didn’t live to grow old, I say. She never had time to lose her teeth. Albu knows all about my grandmother’s teeth, which is why he’s bringing them up.
As a woman, I know how I look on any given day. I also know that a kiss on the hand shouldn’t hurt, that it shouldn’t feel wet, that it should be delivered to the back of the hand. The art of hand kissing is something men know even better than women—and Albu is hardly an exception. His entire head reeks of Avril, a French eau de toilette that my father-in-law, the Perfumed Commissar, used to wear too. Nobody else I know would buy it. A bottle on the black market costs more than a suit in a store. Maybe it’s called Septembre, I’m not sure, but there’s no mistaking that acrid, smoky smell of burning leaves.
Once I’m sitting at the small table, Albu notices me rubbing my .ngers on my skirt, not only to get the feeling back into them but also to wipe the saliva off. He .ddles with his signet ring and smirks. Let him: it’s easy enough to wipe off somebody’s spit; it isn’t poisonous, and it dries up all by itself. It’s something everybody has. Some people spit on the pavement, then rub it in with their shoe since it’s not polite to spit, not even on the pavement. Certainly Albu isn’t one to spit on the pavement—not in town, anyway, where no one knows who he is and where he acts the re.ned gentleman. My nails hurt, but he’s never squeezed them so hard my .ngers turned blue. Eventually they’ll thaw out, the way they do when it’s freezing cold and you come into the warm. The worst thing is this feeling that my brain is slipping down into my face. It’s humiliating, there’s no other word for it, when your whole body feels like it’s barefoot. But what if there aren’t any words at all, what if even the best word isn’t enough.
Excerpted from The Appointment by Herta Müller.
Copyright © 2001 by Metropolitan Books.
Published in 2001 Henry Holt and Company, LLC.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.