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?