Thursday, April 13, 2017

Book 169, Romania: "The Land of Green Plums", by Herta Müller

I'm feeling a little bad for choosing this work. Yes, Herta Müller is a Nobel Prize winner who was born in Romania, and yes, The Land of Green Plums is set in that country, describing the experience of state surveillance and paranoia under the regime of the Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

However, the story doesn't represent the experiences of the average Romanian, but that of the Banat Swabians, i.e. the German minority. These guys were scapegoated in society, due to the role of Germany during World War Two—sometimes almost rightfully: the protagonist (and Müller herself!) had fathers who had loyally served in the SS.

And yet they were also privileged in a sense: Germany was an important political and cultural power, which they could (and did) escape to as refugees. Even ordinary Romanians wanted to learn German. So they had a double consciousness, rather like the Chinese or Jewish diaspora across the world.

The book itself is quite wonderful: it's a dreamlike, poetic vision of a nightmarish world, narrated from the viewpoint of Müller (it's partly autobiographical, and the protagonist is never named). She's a student in an academy where her wayward classmate Lola hangs herself—or is she murdered by the Secret Police? (That theme of suicide and/or political murder will return.)

She befriends three other boys, also Swabians: Edgar, Georg and Kurt, and they find themselves questioned and persecuted by the authorities, hiding their poems, writing letters in code to each other as they enter the working world, in factories and offices and schools across Romania. How they're losing their souls, losing their minds as they're questioned by the insidious Captain Pjele.

Their mothers write to them from their villages, where their bones are aching, chiding them for getting on the wrong side of the political system, reminding them of their suffering. Their other friends may or may not be informants or traitors. They find themselves fired, or so depressed they can't work, so they have to fake illnesses—not so difficult to do, since you can bribe doctors in the dysfunctional Communist economy.

It's a wrenching, Kafkaesque view of another world—and it's pretty damn strange to read, when under late capitalism, I have friends who are advocating a return to Communism as the ideology that will save us all. The Communist states of Eastern Europe and East Asia are bad examples, they say. A true Communist state has never existed yet, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't keep trying.

But then again, even today, in Singapore and Malaysia and Trump's USA, me and my friends rightfully fear persecution for our activism. I watched 1987: Untracing the Conspiracy recently, and afterwards I had to ask my boyfriend what should I do if the authorities took me in and cowed me with threats that they would harm him?

And how strange that Kafka was able to inspire an image of dystopia in Eastern Europe, even before the Communist revolutions took hold. Back when it was all a beautiful utopian dream that we thought might work.

Representative quote: 
As I wandered, I didn't only see the demented and their dried-up belongings. I also saw the guards walking up and down the streets. Young men with yellowish teeth standing guard at the entrances of big buildings, outside shops, on squares, at tramstops, in the scruffy park, in front of the dormitories, in bodegas, outside the station. Their suits fitted them badly; they were either too loose or too tight. They knew where the plum trees were in every precinct they policed. They even took roundabout routes to pass by the plum trees. The boughs drooped. The guards filled their pockets with green plums. They picked them fast, their pockets bulged. One picking was supposed to last them a long time. After they had filled their jacket pockets, they quickly left the trees behind. Plumsucker was a term of abuse. Upstarts, opportunists, sycophants and people who stepped over dead bodies were called that. The dictator was called a plumsucker too.

The young men walked up and down and reached their hands inside their jacket pockets. They took the plums out a fistful at a time, to attract attention less often. Only when their mouths were full could they close their fists. 

Because they always took so many plums at once, one or two always fell on the ground or rolled down their sleeves while they ate. The guards kicked the plums that fell on the ground into the grass, like little balls. They fished the other plums from the crooks of their elbows and stuffed them into their already bulging cheeks.

I saw the foam on their teeth and thought: You can't eat green plums, the pits are still soft, and you'll swallow your death.

Next book: The Physics of Sorrow, by Georgi Gospodinov, from Bulgaria.