The next time your friends start waxing nostalgic about the good old Ceausescu days back in Romania, just tell them to read Herta Müller’s The Land of Green Plums. Or pick the book up yourself, if you are jonesing to spend some hours in a world where totalitarianism has blotted out the possibility, not only of dissent, but of decent food, enjoyable sex, pleasing conversation, even it seems) competent prose. Me, I’d rather read a book that offers some aesthetic or emotional gratification, or both, but I should note that Müller was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2009.
It is hard to convey Green Plums’ combination of portentous, pretentious poeticism with visceral disgust except by example. Let’s start with Lola, the narrator’s college roommate and in many ways the catalyst of the novel. Lola keeps a journal with deep observations such as the following:
No more melons. No more sheep. Only mulberry trees, because all of us have leaves…Leaves fall off when you stop growing, because childhood is all gone, and they grow back when you shrivel up, because love is all gone.
When not getting her oracular groove on, she can be found frying eggs on the dorm room’s iron, which is pretty gross but probably less so than the ever-growing assortment of organ meats that she keeps in the communal fridge. The hearts and kidneys, so far as I can tell, are the resulte of her usual social activity. This consists in putting on ‘mascara’ made of soot and spit, catching the late-evening bus that carries the meat-packing workers home from the factory, picking up a random dude, and taking him to the “scruffy park” for some (in Müller’s description) very unpleasant sex. The organ meats seem to be something between a payment and a favor.
An inexplicable admiration for Lola brings together the narrator and three male friends, and the authorities take an interest in their suspect activities, which in clude reading a German cookbook (the friends and the author are ethnic Germans) and hanging out at the bar, trading barbs such as “You and your Swabian shirt and shoes!” This is apparently quite cutting, dog knows why.
The standard Müller picture of workers is well illustrated by the bar’s other patrons. They get drunk and hit each other over the head with bottles until someone knocks a tooth out. At this point they all laugh and put the tooth into a glass, passing it around for good luck until it disappears. Now they become enraged again; they strip the leaves from the bar’s decorative plants, stuff them into their mouths, and bellow until one of them, sheepish but also proud, admits that he swallowed the tooth on purpose.
Anyway, the friends are pulled in by the secret police and intimidated Müller-style (the narrator is forced to sing a folksong with incorrect words), but they stick together When they graduate there is a touching farewell:
I said to Georg,”Look! Your heart-beast is moving on.”
Georg put his thumb under my chin. “You and your Swabian heart-beast!” he laughed.
Drops of spittle flew in my face. I lowered my eyes and saw Georg’s fingers by my chin. His knuckles were white, and his fingers blue with cold. I wiped the spit from my face…
“And you’re solid wood, through and through!” I snapped back.
They exchange coded letters, and this is actually kind of interesting for a while, but soon the novel settles back into its routine of demented platitudes, horrible food (rancid bacon and the unripe plums of the title are favorite items), revolting mercenary sex, and loathsome factory workers (one friend says the workers at his slaughterhouse are addicted to drinking blood, which I guess makes sense, since we are in Transylvania). Eventuallly some of the characters commit suicide, and who can blame them? Whatever awaits on the other side is bound to be better than a world run by Herta Müller.
It may be thought that the peculiarities of Green Plums are an attempt to deal with Romanian censorship, but the book was written after Müller came to the West, and after the fall of the regime. It may also be suggested that the more over-the-top stuff is intended to be funny, and though I don’t at all get this feeling from the book, I have to concede that it can be hard to tell when Germans are being funny. Stories that strike Germans as wholesome kid-friendly fun can seem like sadistic fantasies to outsiders (Max und Moritz? The Daumenschneider?), and I read somewhere that Kafka’s friends thought his stories were real thigh-slappers. Much as I admire Kafka, I never really thought of him as the German-speaking James Thurber.
I suppose you could decide the humor issue on the basis of which you consider more charitable, to regard Green Plums as a dismal comedy or a silly tragedy.