But I do have an interest in Eastern Europe during the Cold War and I am a fan of slim books. So when Herta Muller‘s The Passport came in the mail I figured this was my chance to appear cultured and with it! (actually, the story just seemed interesting but still …)
The story, set in a German village in Romania during Ceausescu’s dictatorial reign, centers on the travails of the village miller Windisch as he seeks to emigrate to West Germany.
For this he needs “papers” and the assistance of local officials who require any number of bribes or favors to speed the process along. In a totalitarian regime this means they have the power to extract whatever they can get. And they seem intent on squeezing the humanity right out of Windisch.
Someone has described this novella as a “fragmented prose-poem” and that has a lot to recommend it as the story is far from straightforward. It has the feel of stream of consciousness mixed with poetry. The often short sentences are full of imagery and allusions; , mixing traditional narrative with descriptions internal and external. It certainly has a surrealist element.
At first I was put off by this and struggled to get a rhythm reading. But as I became accustomed to Muller’s style, and began to appreciate the style, I saw how the writing came together to achieve its effect. You have the sparse prose and harsh conditions contrasted with the poetic descriptions and vivid imagination.
And in this way it seems to perfectly capture the time and place both physically and emotionally. You have these captive peoples trapped in their own heads – the only part of their lives that were their own. The fear and bitterness infiltrating and undermining relationships and confidences; seeping into the fabric of their lives and their society.
In order to try and make a better life for his family Windisch is forced to agree to things no man should have to endure. And it – and the alcohol he uses to keep the demons at bay – makes him physically ill at times. He tries stoicism but anger often erupts and he takes it out on his wife and daughter; who else is there?
When he does escape and later returns the village seems both familiar and alien. The people going through the same motions but trapped in the past (the night watchman is married to a barefooted goat herder). Ceausescu has locked these people into poverty and misery and they are simply doing the best they can to get by; holding on to their faith, stuperstitions, and traditions as the only way they know.
The Passport is not an “easy” read in the traditional sense nor is it likely to be a taste for everyone. But I am glad I read it to gain a little insight into the style and work of this now famous – at least mildly – author. If you are curious about the most recent Noble winner this is clearly a book where the risk reward is in your favor (even if you don’t like it it’s less than 100 pages).
As a bonus you can brag about how with it and cultured you are …