I’ve just finished reading The Passport by Herta Müller. It’s a short book (92 pp.) about a family in a German village in Romania under Ceauşescu’s regime, trying to obtain passports in order to emigrate to West Germany. The ending has left me confused (there’s a religious reference) but reading has been an interesting experience.
To start with, Müller has this interesting way of narrating: short sentences with action verbs, with almost no conjunctions. It looks as if the text is fragmented down to every short sentence; a bit staccato. Coupled with surrealist twists, this syntax makes the text quite extraordinary:
“Windish closes his eyes. He feels the wall growing on his face. The lime burns his forehead. A stone in the lime opens its mouth. The apple tree trembles. Its leaves are ears. They listen. The apple tree drenches its green apples” (28).
But there is a sense of continuity in the book – between individual chapters of the book, between sentences in a chapter etc. These sentences, for example, spread over a page (41-42):
“There’s a green bubble above the teapot.”
“Crying, she places the teapot on the table.”
“Windisch sits in front of the tea cup. The steam eats his face.”
“Windisch drinks a mouthful of tea.”
“Windisch breathes deeply. He finds his breath at the bottom of the cup.”
As the novel explored the harsh realities and ironies of life, I felt that this pared-down narration actually suited the content, and it sort of grew on me.
Another thing I noticed, there are recurrent references to sharp objects. Knives, axes; names of occupations involving the use of sharp tools: skinner, joiner. The joiner’s wife picking a splinter of wood out of his finger with a needle, Windisch’s wife killing a cock, a woodcutter chopping wood. At some point I thought the author must be building up a certain atmosphere, and the translator must be going along with it, because even the blades of grass and leaves are brought up – quite often for a 92-page book. I don’t know, does it somehow echo the anxious wait for the passport? Like, pins and needles? Nothing major involving sharp objects at the end of the book though.
According to a pull-quote on the cover, Herta Müller is known for her skilful use of metaphor. This text owes its figurative and hallucinatory agility to the translator Martin Chalmers. Consider these sentences:
“The funeral song explodes as it tumbles out of the horn” (48).
“Amalie sprays two large clouds under her armpits” (68).
“A strip of tinfoil falls out of Amalie’s handbag onto the carpet. It is full of round white warts” (68).
“Windisch holds a wet burning globe on his tongue. The globe rolls down his throat. A fire flickers in Windisch’s temples. The globe dissolves. It draws hot threads through Windisch’s forehead. It pushes crooked furrows like partings through his hair (70-71).
It wasn’t an easy read after all. The past and the present were mixed, Windisch was talking to himself and seeing things in mirrors… but I’m glad that I read it because it reflected a very direct involvement with life. There were passages describing the cold weather and the drive to remain alive during the war. Women were abused for basic necessities. It was quite a powerful novel, quite evocative.