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By Herta Muller
New York: Harbrace Paperbound Library, 1958
ISBN # 0-15-665950-6
95 poems, pages not numbered

Comments by Bob Corbett
June 2013

“I’ve been summoned. Thursday, at ten sharp.”

Thus opens this eerie novel, narrated by an unnamed woman. Presumably she had been a fairly normal person until these interrogations began, but increasingly in the novel the pressure the interrogations bring the “suspect,” if that’s what she is, to the very breaking point, if not over the top.

Seemingly the time is late in the reign of Nicolae Ceausescu who was General Secretary of the Romanian Communist Party from 1965-1989. The woman narrator had been a worker in a garment factory. However, in sort of desperation she began to hiding notes in the clothing she was making that was being sent to Italy. “Marry me,” read the notes and gave contact information for her. She is discovered and turned in and now is somehow suspect, but she’s not sure of what. Nonetheless, she is called now and again, on no particular schedule, to be interrogated by Major Albu.

Like a symphony whose grand finale ends in a burst of furious music, so does this tale. She can’t really face these interrogations, and tells us her story while preparing to go to the latest questioning to which she’s been summoned. It is the tale of a person completely unraveling mentally and there is a deep sense of her hopelessness and dread that overlays the whole tale.

She lives with Paul, her second husband. It isn’t exactly a marriage of love or contentment, but she seems to need him as he needs her. Paul drinks a great deal, perhaps as a way to deal with the inner turmoil that her “appointments” bring to her life.

“If we’re in each other’s way at least it means we each have someone. They only place you sleep alone is in your coffin, and that’ll happen soon enough. We should stay together at night.”

She always wears the green-blouse-that-grows to her interrogations – she needs the certainty and reliability of the routine. Once home she changes to the grey-blouse-that-waits.

Why is she even with Paul? Somehow she needs him, and even so obsesses over their meaningless relationship – maybe not meaningless, but trivial -- that she (perhaps) avoids thinking of the interrogations.

Colonel Albu is her interrogator. We really learn very little about him other than he is quite handsome and, to her, very mysterious. She never seems to know why she is being interrogated or what he wants to know.

She had a dear friend, Lilli, but she is now dead. Lilli, like Albu, was a very beautiful person and seemingly about the only friend she’s really had save perhaps to some extent her husband.

Nelu is about the only other character who enters the story in any serious way. He was the boss at the factory where she worked. He may have informed on her. He learned about her “notes” she was putting in the clothes, and tried to use that information to force her back into a sexual liaison they had once had while on a business trip, but she wasn’t willing to accommodate him. She suspects he was the one who put a second set of notes into clothing, the actual notes which seemly more implicated her in political wrong doing. She seems to really have wanted to kill him but just didn’t have it in her.

The novel consists of her thoughts and memories expressed to us while she is riding the tram to the latest interrogation to which she’s been summoned. There are no chapters. Every now and again there is double spacing and the beginning of a new paragraph, normally there is also a change in time of her memories. There is seemingly no unity. It as though she has random thoughts, perhaps to forget the horror she feels at the interrogations which seem go nowhere. “. . . you can’t find happiness in being calm.”

There is more sadness in her life that just the interrogations. She never really loved her parents, but one searing memory she has is of when she was 8 years old and her mother told her of her brother who died young:

“If your brother had lived we wouldn’t have had you.”

Most of the novel is situated in her thoughts while riding the streetcar to her coming interrogation. The world as she sees it and remembers it is spinning out of control and she is losing contact with reality. Even the tram she is on is being driven by a driver who himself seems out of control and erratic in his behavior.

For me there was a constant presence of Franz Kafka in her tale. Like Joseph K in The Trial she doesn’t really understand what is going on; things are happening to her and brought on by people of power whom she cannot resist, just as was Joseph K, and she is following the orders of the interrogators as they came to her; she just couldn’t deal with them.

Herta Muller knew this world of Romania under Ceausescu. She was born in 1953 and worked in Romania until 1987. She was active in resistance to the government and was finally allowed to leave. When she received her Nobel Prize in Literature the committee described her as an author "who, with the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed"

Clearly the main character was not only one of the dispossessed but a figure of the many Romanians who suffered under the Ceausescu reign.

Bob Corbett


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