I published the following review of THE LAND OF GREEN PLUMS in The Washington Times on November 17, 1996. It was one of very few reviews that book received. It was not quoted on the paperback version. When I called The Washington Times today (October 8, 2009) they can not access it as back issued are not available. One of course feels compassion for Herta Muller for by winning the Nobel Prize...
Of course, in the United States what passes for a novel has sunk even lower...
Finally, a book that describes in precisely hewn detail what it was like to live in Romania under communism. By paying careful attention to the slightest nuances of life in Romania the book also gives an accurate description of what it was like to be alive anywhere in Eastern Europe during the years of communism.
Author Herta Muller was born in 1953 into the large German-speaking minority in Romania, and like the narrator of her new novel, she was driven to leave Romania in 1987. In 1989, her short episodic novel The Passport" was published here in translation. But it only hints at the startling originality of "The Land of the Green Plums," which is seamlessly translated by poet Michael Hofmann. It faithfully follows the original German edition in terms of typography and spacing, which emphasize the poetic nature of the text and make it easier to follow the subtle shifts of mood and voice.
By tracing out the varied fates of five young persons who meet at a provincial college--- Lola, Edgar, Kurt, Georg and the narrator--- Miss Muller has constructed a devastating portrait of how ordinary lives were twisted and devoured by the fear that was purposefully created by the rulers of Eastern Europe, in this case, Nicolae Ceausescu.
The books of Czeslaw Milosz, Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Nadezhda Mandelstam have prepared us for the the awfulness of that life, which distorted every aspect of the human personality. If I were to tell you of being arrested in Bulgaria in 1967 for writing on a table-cloth, "No communists. No capitalists. Only free people. All you need is love." you might think I was putting you on. (I am not) Similarly, one's first reaction is disbelief when Miss Muller describes what happens after Lola, a fellow student and friend of the narrator, hangs herself.
"Five girls stood by the entrance-way of the dormitory. Inside the glass display case was Lola's picture, the same as the one in her Party book. Under the picture was a piece of paper. Somoeone read out loud: This student has committed suicide. We abhor her crime and we despise her for it. She has brought disgrace upon the whole country... At four o'Clock in the afternoon, in the great hall, two days after she hanged herself, Lola was expelled from the party and exmatriculated from the university. Hundreds of people were there. Someone stood at the lectern and said, She deceived us all, she doesn't deserve to be a student in our country or a member of out party. Everybody applauded."
The horror is in the pronouns: us, we, our.
Miss Muller has construced a novel that violates every rule of what was expected of a novelist in communist Romania. It also might be said that the book goes against neary every expectation of what passes for a novel today in America. It eschews plot. What is happening line by line, page by page, outweighs any interest in what is going to happen next. We live within the head and central nervous system of the narrator. But it is not a claustrophobic place to be: The voice is alive to the world, defiantly alive in a determination to fail in the construction of positive, uplifting characters.
Miss Muller relies upon the sensibility and intelligence of her readers to understand that they are being asked to enter into the consciousness of the narrator, who makes her way through a life that offers nothing but suicide, exile and betrayal. Her narrator also undersands that, having survived that world and made it to Germany, one still has been irrevocably mutilated in spirit by this world where, "you could feel the dictator and his guards hovering over all the secret escape plans, you could feel them lurking and doling out fear."
The title of the book says much, but it needs a little explanation: "Plumsucker was a term of abuse. Upstarts, opportunists, sycophants and people who stepped over the dead bodies without remorse were caled that. The dictator was called a plumsucker, too."
In a country run by such people, it got you labeled as a dangerous dissident if you were even mildly lacking in enthusiasim for the communist future and wished to maintain some sense of ordinary decency and privacy. Once singled out, the characters in the novel can never escape the attentions of the police and their accomplices.
Miss Muller ranges across the whole of Romanian society, from the peasants ground down by hunger and casual brutalization to the industrial workers who work in dnagerous factories making useless articles no one wants. Her depiction of the degraded workewrs in a slaughterhouse is unequaled anywhere in the literature from Eastern Europe. The men drink the blood of the slaughtered animals and trade stolen raw animal parts for casual and violently demeaning sex while thinking they are getting back at the regime by so doing.
"The men staggered and yelled at one another before snashing each other over the head with empty bottles. They bled. If a tooth fell to the ground, they would laugh as if someone had lost a button. Someone would bend over, pick up the tooth and toss it into his glass. Because it brought good luck, the tooth was pased from glass to glass. Everyone wanted it"
The narrator, like the other voices she allows to enter her mind, learns that you cant trust anyone, whch is probably the most awful result of communism.
She becoems friends with Tereza whose father is a well-connected sculptor. When the narrator is finally living in Germany, Tereza comes to visit, but she comes as an agent of the police, to spy, since one of the narrator's friends has either jumped or been pushed from a window to his death. Tereza is meant to be sympathetic: She has cancer, no luck in love, and yet she betrays the narrator, who alone has been nice to her.
And of the man who has driven two of the narrator's friends to suicide and another into a miserable exile, representing thousands, probably, the author laments that there has been no retribution, no closure, no justice.
This is the horrifying and unblinking truth of this novel and why it has to live on. Miss Muller has triumphed in her honesty, and "The Land of the Green Plums" is her testimony.
PS: and to date, all those communists and fellow travelers for the most part got away with it and in many cases turned themselves into the so-called mafia--- but that is another tale waiting to be told as the former communists and their fellow travelers go about convincing the world that they are the only people who really suffered under the communism