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Herta Müller, The Land of Green Plums. New York: Henry Holt and Company, Metropolitan Books, 1996.

When the Romanian-German author Herta Müller burst upon the European literary scene in 1984 with her collection of stories entitled Niederungen, she was hailed as a writer whose deceptively simple style was unique among German writers both for the purity of its language and for its stark poetic imagery. The title story of this collection portrayed with unflinching candor the author's childhood home of Nitzkydorf, a German-speaking village in the Banat region of Romania. In a manner reminiscent of Maxim Gorky's My Childhood, Müller pierced the facade of idealized village life to show its harsh oppressiveness and the withering effects it had upon her childhood.

In her later, longer works -- Der Mensch ist ein großer Fasan auf der Welt, Reisende auf einem Bein, Der Fuchs war damals schon der Jäger -- Müller focussed on adult characters, but in her latest novel The Land of Green Plums (Herztier in German), she has created what is arguably her most autobiographical novel to date, and interwoven a thick strand of childhood memories into a story line which begins with the narrator's student years at the University of Timisoara. The novel shows the human destruction caused by the Ceausescu dictatorship; at the same time, through linkages with the narrator's past, it demonstrates how the oppression of the state is a continuation of the oppression the narrator experienced in her childhood village. This layered approach underscores the fact that the Ceausescu dictatorship was not unique, for both the narrator's SS father and the Romanian dictator "made graveyards." To distinguish between the two time layers, Müller writes the childhood memories of her narrator in the third person and the present tense, while relating the novel's "present" in first-person, preterit-forms. By depersonalizing the figure of the child Müller lends these memories broad applicability, while the present tense forms suggest that one can never escape one's memories or one's past.

Sights, sounds, and imagery link the narrator's present with past memories. A university student hangs herself with the belt of the narrator's dress, and the narrator remembers how her mother used to use her dressbelt to tie her daughter to a chair while she trimmed the child's nails. A brown field checkered with snow reminds one of the father's brown-and-white checkered house slippers, and how he had once crushed his daughter's hand between them. The tassels on those slippers are recalled when the adult narrator sees a horse with tassels hanging before its eyes to remind it of the beatings it has endured from a tasseled whip.

The child's singing grandmother tells it to "Rest your heart-beast now, you've played so much today," and the "heart-beast" recurs throughout the story -- as the frosty breath of the frightened dissident students, as the departed spirits of the narrator's father and grandmother. "Heart-beast" is an image of vulnerability, and it is the title of the German original. The English title takes another of Müller's images -- green plums -- that links vulnerability with brutality. The father tells the child not to eat the hard green plums because the tender pits will kill her. Still, the young men who flee the provinces to become members of the state police guard gorge themselves on green plums. The green plums do not kill them, but they do "make them stupid," and they work off the "poisonous fire" of the soft pits by terrorizing the frightened populace. The plums acquire frightful connotations in the city, where "plumsuckers" is a term of abuse for "upstarts, opportunists, sycophants, and people who stepped over dead bodies without remorse [...]. The dictator was called a plumsucker, too."

All the figures of the novel carry their provincial childhoods with them into the cities. Displaced villagers carry them, quite literally, in the mulberry trees they bring to plant in city courtyards. But they also carry the provinces "into their faces." The cities are not only an extension, but a degradation, of the provinces. Shepherds who flee the country to come and work in state factories produce useless "tin sheep," and former farmers create "wooden melons" in the state-run wood-processing plants. The workers in the state-operated slaughterhouses secretly gorge themselves on animal blood. Their children are their accomplices: "When their fathers kiss them goodnight, they smell that they've been drinking blood in the slaughterhouse, and they want to go there too."  As one of the characters of the novels comments, "Everyone's a villager here. Our heads may have left home, but our feet are just standing in a different village. No cities can grow in a dictatorship, because everything stays small when it's being watched."

At one of her readings, Herta Müller recalled that, when she moved from Nitzkydorf to Temisoara as a fifteen-year-old, she "saw that everything the village had given me was wrong." As a student, the narrator of the novel quickly learns that everything the state has given her is wrong as well; this becomes clear when a dorm mate named Lola commits apparent "suicide" after becoming a burden to her party-member lover. This lover then leads the vote to wipe the dead student's name from the party membership rolls.

The narrator meets three male students who do not accept Lola's death as suicide, and she and they form a band of frightened dissidents who are hounded by the police and subjected to frequent house searches and terrifying interrogations. Not even a friendship based on desperation and mutual trust can protect them; instead, the state places unbearable strains on their friendship and drives two of them to their deaths.

But the narrator experiences a deeper shock in her inability to comprehend her women friends. She, like her dorm mates, had feared Lola as a possible party informant until Lola's death causes the narrator to reexamine her assumptions and realize that Lola was the true victim of the party. Then a deep and apparently unshakable friendship with a rebellious, privileged factory worker named Tereza comes to a shockingly abrupt end when the narrator discovers that Tereza has agreed to betray her in return for being permitted a trip to the West. Like a refrain throughout the novel, a recurring dissident song reminds the narrator that:

Everyone had a friend in every wisp of cloud
that's how it is with friends when the world is full of fear
even my mother said, that's how it is
friends are out of the question
think of more serious things.

It is tempting to read the novel as a roman à clef, and to identify not only the narrator as Herta Müller, but to associate the other characters with specific figures: Edgar with Richard Wagner, Georg with Rolf Bossert, and Kurt with Roland Kirsch. Müller readily admits the similarities, but points out that the experiences of several members of the Banat literary circle, or Aktionsgruppe Banat, have been compressed into these three figures, and that many episodes and character traits in the novel are her invention. Only the story of Tereza, she has stated, is absolutely true to fact.

Certainly this part of the novel is emotionally the most devastating. Müller recounts it by again breaking with the chronology of her narrative and leaping into the future to portray the rupture of the friendship at the very center of her novel. She then retraces the path to that rupture, and to Tereza's death from cancer -- a technique that increases the poignancy of her friend's death and the narrator's pain at her betrayal. The narrator recalls that, when she was a child, her Nazi father had hacked away at the milk thistles in the garden, and she had thought, "Father knows something about life. Because Father stashes his guilty conscience inside the damn stupid plants and hacks them down." At the close of the novel, the narrator wonders whether she, too, has learned something about life: "Tereza's death hurt me so much, it was as if I had two heads smashing into each other. One was full of mown love, the other of hate. I wanted the love to grow back. It grew like grass and straw, all mixed up together, and turned into an icy affirmation on my brow. That was my damn stupid plant." The narrator can no more exterminate the past than her father could. Furthermore, the juxtaposition of the betrayal and death of her friend makes Tereza's death of cancer as much a consequence of living under the Romanian dictatorship as are the deaths of Lola, Georg, and Kurt.

Ultimately, the narrator and her friend Edgar leave Romania and relocate in Germany, but they cannot escape the damage the dictatorship inflicted on its citizens. The novel documents the way that fear erodes the strength of the individual, by blunting one's senses and destroying one's capacity for sustained interpersonal relationships. This is a theme with implications that reach beyond the confines of Ceausescu's police state, for it is an erosion that occurs wherever one is forced to live under conditions of prolonged fear. By portraying that erosion through simple, even brutal language cast upon an elaborate grid of recurring images and songs, Müller has created a psychological and artistic tour de force. The English translation captures both the harsh intensity and poetic beauty of the German original.

Beverley Driver Eddy
Dickinson College

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