The Passport – Herta Muller

I found it exceptionally difficult in deciding which book I should read first in 2010. I wanted to start the year well. I had a good selection of four that I kept ‘umming and ahhing’ over until I decided on a book that combined some of this years reading resolutions. The Passport by Herta Muller matches a lot of my resolution criteria in one go. It is a translated piece of work, its short book and she’s a prize winning author winning the Nobel Prize for Literature last year. Short and yet challenging was my thought before reading it, would that prove a correct guess?

I hadn’t heard of The Passport or its author Herta Muller until she won the aforementioned Nobel Prize for Literature last year and so really went into reading this with no preconceptions and maybe this is why in many ways it proved a very interesting and quite different read. The book is set in a German village in the Danube plains of Romania and looks at how the villagers are surviving trapped under the dictatorship of Ceausescu.  It’s a place where people believe that the apple tree is possessed by the devil and that you must always watch the movements of owls. It’s also a place everyone wants to escape from, if only they can get their hands on passports or bribe, beg and steal them. It is through the eyes of the village miller Windisch as he cycles about the village that we the reader observe short sharp scenes of the villagers lives.

“The light is still burning in the joiner’s house. Windisch stops. The window pane shines. It reflects the street. It reflects the trees. The picture passes through the lace curtain. Through its falling posies of flowers into the room.A coffin lid leans against the wall beside the tiled stove. It’s waiting for the death of Widow Kroner. Her name is written on the lid. The room seems empty despite the furniture, because it’s so bright.”

It is through a chapter; though they are more snapshots of two pages maximum, called ‘A Big House’ that we learn about the regime the villagers are all under as Windisch’s daughter Amalie teaches her class. In fact Amalie ends up playing a very important role in how her family end up getting passports in order to escape this trap they have found themselves living in and in quite a disturbing way. She is also the constant worry of her father as he becomes aware she may be sexually active. Along with all that goes on in his village as well as his daughter and the misery of his marriage, which is a union of loss and consolation rather than love, the tale through Windisch’s eyes is quite a bleak and desperate one but I do feel it is definitely one that should be told.

I will admit in parts the book lost me as it’s doesn’t have a rigid pattern and a paragraph or two might need a re-read in order to make sense, in some ways this was part of the books beauty. The true beauty of the book is Muller’s prose which is a delight to read and is so poetic, even if sometimes you might not be quite sure what she is referring to or making a metaphor of. Each tale also reads slightly differently, some being very surreal, some being told through slight repition which differs slightly each time, some even like song and some with short sentences, some with long. It’s like an author trying everything which again makes for very interesting reading. These surreal snapshots with walls that talk and owls that can kill by landing on a roof, that bring to life the village in a way, for example through the villagers dreams, that I haven’t read in a book about the war and its after effects.

An interesting and intriguing book, if 2010 keeps on like this I will have some quite amazing and unusual reading experiences ahead of me which I think could be very exciting, don’t you?


Filed under Herta Muller, Nobel Prize, Review, Serpent's Tail

19 responses to “The Passport – Herta Muller

  1. You are right, you don’t want to start off the year with a crappy book. I think you’ve succeeded. I’ve read two 5 star books and a DNF. How’s that for start?

  2. Well first things first, Happy New Year! I know what you mean choosing a book to be your first to read in a new year is a tricky task, I think you were successful.

    • Happy New Year to you too Jessica. I think the first book of the year is always a slight worry as for me it sort of sets a tone for the bookish year ahead. This one was an interesting one, so am hoping upon an interesting year.

  3. Simon, great start to the year! I like how it embodies some of your main resolutions. I haven’t set any specific resolutions for myself (just general ones) but I did look for a 2009 book to start off 2010 and one I was excited to read; due to crappy cold and a looooong car journey home, I haven’t had much reading time yet but I am enjoying it.

    The Passport is on its way to me and was one I had hoped to read before the end of ’09 but, alas, best laid plans… hence why I am not setting down many plans for this year!

    • The resolutions definitley helped me choose the book, I had three to start with and have demolished two. Halfway through TWUBC now which I am finding as brilliant as all of Murakami’s other works so far… if as bizarre. But shouldnt do spoilers on here should I! Eek.

      No plans sounds like a brilliant plan!

  4. Eva

    Wow-you totally sold me on the book! I had a Romanian friend at grad school, but he was too young to experience the conditions that you talk about. I found it fascinating, because he went to uni in Germany and identified with Germans as much as Romanian.

    I prefer shorter novels when the author has chosen a more challenge style; that way, when I need to reread paragraphs, I still feel calm. There isn’t as much urgency, at least for me, when a book is slim.

    • This is definately an unusual style of book and in its own way quite challenging. It was just what I needed to start the year off I think.

      It’s also a fascinating historical point in Romania which I knew nothing about and have now been off finding out much more and its quite shocking really.

  5. Hello, Simon! You certainly had me intrigued about this book. Like you, I have never heard of Muller before she won the Nobel. (I remember in 1998 when Saramago won. I was like “Saramago who?” Now, he’s one of my favorite authors.)

    I do hope that our local bookstores here in Manila would stock up on Muller’s books. I can’t wait to read her novels!

    • Hey Peter, its a great short wonderful book. I wouldnt have tried her without the Nobel win as would possibly not have heard of her and I would have so missed out.

      You must take a picture of the bookstores of Manila I would love to see them.

  6. What a great start to the New Year! I of course have been curious to read her work since the Nobel win, but haven’t even seen anything about it. I’m glad it was so satisfying. I’m looking forward to it myself now!

    • I hope everyone else enjoys it as much as I do. It’s had very mixed reception on a few blogs and reviews on a certain well known webshop. It is a little leftfield in some ways, I look forward to you all letting me know what you think!

  7. I bought this one last October… Started to read it… Thought WTF… and put it aside, hoping to pick it up again when I was in a better frame of mind.

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  9. I was born and raised in Romania and when I was 11 we moved to Germany. But I don’t remember the Ceausescu Era since I was only 3 years old when the Revolution took place (1989). My grandparents have told me a lot about it. I will definitely have to read this book. Thank you so much for reviewing this book. It means a lot to me that she won the Nobel Prize, since people don’t really know much about Romania or Romanians other than clichés.

    • Thanks for the lovely comment Andreea, I was wondering what Romanian authors or fiction would you say that people should really, really read? I would be interested as you are right we dont hear of many authors or books set there.

  10. Well, my favorite Romanian author is the poet Mihai Eminescu. He is very famous in Romania, but unfortunately he died at a young age. But I don’t know if there are any English translations of his poems. I will search for them and I will let you know (if you like poems). I can’t think of any contemporary Romanian author, I only remember those that we read in school. I will have to inform myself on that:)

  11. This is an author with a unique voice and the Nobel Prize for her was an excellent decision in my opinion. Her highly condensed and poetic prose stays a long time with the reader. I enjoyed this book very much:

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