RoMania–it’s catching!

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.

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2 Responses to RoMania–it’s catching!

  1. apolena says:

    Roy, this is going to be a rant; not against you, but against the book, or rather the outlook that the book projects — I trust that you describe it well, as I am going to commit what I always hated in college: people criticizing texts they did not read (note to self: read the book and come back to reassess the ranting comments). But I have to do it because this touches a really sensitive area for me.

    I have never been to Romania, but I was a young adult in 1989 when the state-socialist — yes, I consider that a much more fitting label than “Communism” or “totalitarianism” — regime collapsed in Czechoslovakia.

    Not sure about Romania but — and while I, on the one hand, dislike assertion that all the state-soc. countries were the same, because they weren’t (this comes from the fallacy that, without much thought, posits that 44 years of state-socialist rule more important than several hundred years of previous history); on the other hand, there were certain structural features that the countries shared, which did make many aspects of day-to-day life similar.

    With that background, this: “a world where totalitarianism has blotted out the possibility, not only of dissent, but of decent food, enjoyable sex, pleasing conversation, even it seems” was emphatically NOT true. In fact, it was almost the opposite: freedom of expression was certainly faulty (though even that was not true all throughout, not in late 1960s and not once Gorbachev launched Perestroika, and really, actually, much less so in between those as well than people assume/make it out these days (on the part of my compatriots, thanks to forceful amnesia). — so, anyway, there was lots to criticize for a political scientist, but decent food, enjoyable sex and pleasing conversations were in fact what we DID have, and with which we, in fact, sometimes tried to “compensate” for the absurdities of the public, official political discourse. (Especially attitudes toward sex are notably healthier “there” even today than in the US… Not that great sex somehow excuses the stupidity of the top comrades, or worse, but this beating up on the dead horse that was former state-socialist East-Central Europe, and in such vicious ways (again: not you! lots, and the worst, of it actually comes back from my fellows back home, who became enamored with Thatcher-style neo-liberalism/”conservatism,” and whose relationship to their own past is utterly neurotic), anyway, this — well, distortion of history (and that’s one thing that my dissertation project is actually about, but that would be another, really long post) — that has been going on for 23 years now just drives me nuts. …I guess you can tell, huh 😉 Sorry… I need to get the book. I have been actually kinda trying to follow how state-socialism is fictionalized these days, so need to read it.

    So, yeah, last thing: it is NOT about feeling nostalgic for Ceausescu, or in our case Husak/Jakes, or in Polish case Jaruzelski, or Kadar for the Hungarians. It is about not distorting history. Because it is actually relevant to what goes on in these societies today (just as history from 25 years ago is relevant to what goes on in the US today, and for *understanding* what goes on today). …And I mean: it’s just not nice, even if there was no utilitarian value in it, to distort one’s own history, is it? Not to mention that the real history (and yes, I bracket all caveats about there not being such a things as “real history”) is actually much more interesting and rich than then flat caricature one that’s been in fashion (but the tides has been turning ever so slightly in the last 10 years, at least among some anthropologists and historians) for a quarter of a century now.

    • Roy says:

      You may well have a professional interest in checking Mueller out, since she is apparently highly regarded in some quarters. I am confident that you will find Green Plums as bad as advertised, if not worse in its cumulative effect (impossible to convey in brief citations).

      I suspect that you will find the book to be bad social history, but what irks me more is that it is bad art. Some people (evidently some Swedes) take the medieval-medicine view of literature, that anything that makes you bleed, puke, or shit, is bound to be good for you.

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