Book Review | The Land Of Green Plums

Rose Lapira is intrigued by Herta Muller's Nobel Prize-winning take on the effects of the Romanian dictatorship in the 1980s.

When the Nobel prize for literature was awarded to Herta Muller in 2009, not many in the Anglophone literary world had heard about her, and even less read any of her work.

Muller was born in Romania and belonged to the German ethnic minority living there. For over 30 years, she lived under the dictatorship of Ceausescu until finally in 1987 she went to Germany.  Forming part of a minority, she lived most of her life as an outcast both from Romanian society, and also from her own compatriots when she wrote about their past involvement with national socialism.

The Land of Green Plums, considered by many to be her best work, can be seen as an autobiographical account, for the female narrator belongs to the German speaking minority in Romania, her father was in the SS, as was Muller’s father, and it appears the book was written when the author heard about the suspicious deaths of two of her friends, tragic events which also occur in this story.

The novel opens with the suicide of a young girl which brings together the narrator, who was studying to become a translator, to form a close friendship with three young men, later to be joined by the daughter of an important party member. The author shows what happens to young people who live under the brutal tyranny of despotism and depicts the experiences of characters caught in the net of the security police.

Fear dominates the lives of all the characters and is the binding link between them. It is accompanied by boredom and betrayal, and a sense of failure. Some scenes are like a brutal, surreal nightmare, and symbolism plays a significant role in the narrative. To deal with experiences under a totalitarian State, an author usually takes either a poetic approach, or an absurdist approach bordering on the comical. The events narrated here are certainly not funny, and when there is humour, it is very black indeed.

Why the title The Land of Green Plums? There is more than one reference to plums being eaten voraciously while still green, particularly by policemen.  A symbol of greed, power and stupidity?

When the book was first published in German it had a different title. It was called ‘Hertzier’ – a difficult word to translate in English, made up of a combination of ‘heart’ and ‘animal’. Along with the sense of fear which dominates the novel, there is also a continual reference to the “heart-beast” which is inside people, and which perhaps accounts for this. The author does not give any explanations, and leaves it to us to understand what she wants to convey.

This is not really a novel in the usual sense of the word. Perhaps ‘prose poem’ would describe it better. When Muller was awarded the Nobel Prize, she was praised for depicting “the landscape of the dispossessed” with “the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose.”

The structure and style of the novel is deliberately simple and yet the language is highly complex, often blurred and enigmatic at times. Under the apparently simple language lie many layers of meaning and it is up to the reader to unravel them.

It is not a book for every one, for it requires slow reading, even re-reading at times to understand what the author wants to convey. But it is a powerful, thought provoking book, and very rewarding if one goes along with the poetic flow of words. It is a difficult book to translate, but this has been ably done by Michael Hofmann.

In this book, Muller is writing about herself, about her experiences as an outcast in Romania. This is the story of an outsider. At the end of the war, and with the advent of the Soviets, the ethnic minorities in Romania, including the Hungarians were treated harshly, even though they were all fighting together on Germany’s side.

Gyorgy Dragoman in The White King describes the sufferings of the Hungarian minority in Romania. But then, as often happens, history was re-written. Many were deported to gulags. Muller’s mother was one of them. She was deported for five years.

There is an ever-increasing interest in writers coming from Eastern Europe, who are relatively unknown in the English speaking world. A whole literary world is waiting to be discovered that can help us widen our ideas of Europe. We need to have a comprehensive knowledge of contemporary European literature if we are to discover a sense of ourselves within a European context.

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