Monday, June 13, 2011
Book Review - The Appointment by Herta Mueller
I’ve been summoned. Thursday, ten sharp.
So begins Herta Mueller’s novel of one woman’s life in Romania under the reign of Nicolae Ceauşescu, and we soon learn that this is not the first time our unnamed narrator has been summoned to the office of a man known only as Major Albu for the purpose of interrogation. This isn’t the first time, but for some reason, our narrator believes this interrogation will be worse than any of the interrogations that have gone before.
And what is our narrator’s crime? Sewing notes into the lining of ten white linen suits bound for Italy. “Marry me,” the notes say, along with the narrator’s name and address. To her supervisor, Nelu, these notes are the same thing as prostitution while on the job, and our narrator is “turned over” to Major Albu. Then notes proclaiming “Best Wishes from the Dictatorship” are found in the lining of suits bound for Sweden, and then more notes in suits bound for yet a third country, and our narrator is fired from her job, though she tells us she didn’t write the second and third batch. But that, of course, is irrelevant to Major Albu.
The entire novel – my paperback copy was 214 pages – takes place during the unnamed narrator’s tram ride to her appointment. The tram ride from the seventh floor apartment she shares with her second husband, the alcoholic Paul, until she misses her stop and gets off on the wrong street; a tram ride that takes about ninety minutes and for which she’s risen particularly early.
The tram ride to her appointment with Major Albu seems to trigger thoughts of just about everything in our narrator, expressed as a jumbled interior monologue, and the reader is privy to what seems to be her entire life. She remembers her father’s indiscretions with a person Mueller calls “the woman with the braid” and how our narrator wished to take that woman’s place; she remembers her good friend, Lilli, who was shot and killed while trying to escape across the border to Hungary with her lover, a sixty-six year old military officer; she remembers her own indiscretions with Nelu, the garment factory supervisor with whom she had a brief affair, then rebuffed, leading him to betray her; she remembers how she met her current husband, Paul, at a flea market where she sold the wedding ring her first husband had given her; she remembers her first husband, who betrayed her grandparents; she remembers her former father-in-law, a man she refers to as “the Perfumed Commissar,” who dispatched her grandparents to a forced labor camp while sitting astride the same white horse he rode when he confiscated the property of others.
You’ve probably guessed by now, but this is a book without a hero, a novel without a plot. That was fine with me. I love Ulysses. And as I was reading, I remembered that I loved another book with an antihero that took place entirely on a tram/train – Venedikt Erofeev’s Moscow to the End of the Line. It’s also reminiscent of Kafka’s The Castle and The Trial in that it tells the story of someone who is summoned repeatedly for interrogations. The above books, however, are much better books than The Appointment.
Rather than plot, this book’s narrative consists of a jumbled, fragmented, and elliptical narrative. While it reads smoothly enough, and it’s not at all difficult to keep track of the many jumps into the past and returns to the present, eventually, one begins to wonder if any of it is worth the trouble. The narrator isn’t a sympathetic character at all. It’s very difficult to empathize or sympathize with her, and not because she was living in Romania. The character of Lilli, I thought, who had quite a bit of spunk, would have made a much better protagonist than the numb-to-life narrator, but I feel Mueller used several autobiographical elements in building her unnamed narrator and really wouldn’t have written her any other way.
Another problem for me revolved around the interrogations that took place in Central Europe. Though I certainly don’t mean to diminish them and know they were frightening for those who had to endure them, they just aren’t the stuff that makes us want to sit up at night turning pages. We’re too used to more brutal interrogation tactics and more brutal consequences. The serious Western reader is familiar with the works of Solzhenitsyn and has read about Stalin’s Soviet Union at its very cruelest. With all due respect, what Mueller portrays in The Appointment can’t begin to compare.
Worse yet, there are no real scenes and set pieces in The Appointment. For me, this made it a dry book to read, one I plodded through and didn’t enjoy at all. At one point, regarding her life in Romania, the unnamed narrator says, “Instead of these thoughts we're constantly mulling over, it would be better to have the actual things inside your head, so you could reach in and touch them.” I would have to answer, “Yes, infinitely better.” This goes for novels, too. The reader can only take so much “telling” as opposed to “showing” before he or she grows weary enough to cast the book – and the author – aside. Being privy to the narrator’s thoughts is one thing; reading a 200 plus interior monologue is quite another. There’s some reward for the first, while the second is rarely, if ever, rewarded.
The Nobel Committee got it right when they described Mueller’s work as having “no epic line, no plot with beginning and end.” However, they were praising her books. I can’t.
At times, it seems as though the narrator is so worn down, she’s given up. She says:
Whenever I hear the elevator descending to fetch Albu’s henchmen, I can hear his voice quietly in my head: Tuesday at ten sharp, Saturday at ten sharp, Thursday at ten sharp. How often, after closing the door, have I said to Paul: I’m not going there anymore. Paul would hold me in his arms and say: If you don’t go, they’ll come and fetch you, and then they’ll have you for good.
I suppose that could be the point of the whole book – that life under Ceauşescu was so taxing that many people simply gave up. I can believe that. I can and do have much sympathy for those who had to live under that grueling regime. However, “giving up” doesn’t make for good literature. And I suppose Mueller chose not to name her narrator as a way of identifying her as an “Everyman” in Romania, but for me, the practice of not naming a main character is just annoying and amounts to misplaced conceit.
In some ways, though, the narrator, far from giving up, has herself become a mini Major Albu. She’s very forceful when it comes to her attempts to get Paul to stop drinking even though she admits to herself and to the reader that those attempts are more than likely to come to naught. She complains that “drinkers never admit anything, not even silently to themselves – and they're not about to let anyone else squeeze it out of them, especially somebody who's waiting to hear the admission.'’ Still, she tries.
For me, sexual gratification played far too large a role in this novel. Just about everyone in the book seems to indulge in affairs with anyone and everyone they encounter. Pointless affairs that revolve around neither love nor lust. I thought, for the most part, these characters were far too worn down to indulge in affairs, which ultimately compounded their problems while bringing no relief from the boredom and drudgery that made up their days. The sex struck a very false note to me. I felt like it was inserted arbitrarily.
The Appointment is a book in translation (it was originally written in German; I read it in English), and even allowing for that translation, some of the author’s word choices are strange, to say the least. For example, at one point, the narrator likens the effect the interrogations have on her to “the way the roof of your mouth rises up and glues itself onto your brain.” For me, at least, that was just odd, and it lacked power because it was so bizarre.
Although Paul has been fired from the engine plaint where he worked (he was making contraband TV antennas that would pick up stations in Bucharest and Budapest), our narrator still thinks about the showers he took at the plant and the way the other workers would steal his clothes. Thinking of this, and comparing it to her appointments with Albu, the narrator says, “It's humiliating, there's no other word for it, when your whole body feels like it's barefoot. But what if there aren't any words at all, what if even the best word isn't enough.”
For me, “…your whole body feels like it’s barefoot” is also bizarre. Does Mueller mean she feels ashamed, as though she’s without clothes in public? If so, I think she would have been better off to simply write that rather than compare the feeling to an entire body feeling as though it’s barefoot.
And then there are the run-on sentences: “A breeze was rustling in the ash trees, I listened to the leaves, perhaps Paul was listening to the water.” Or “The giant blue mailbox is in front of the post office, how many letters can it take.” And why did the author dispense with question marks at the end of questions? I have to put this down to conceit, like the nameless narrator, because dispensing with question marks at the end of a question is not standard practice in German.
There were times, however, when I found the description in this novel to be lovely. One of those times occurs when the narrator is describing her widowed mother’s lack of affect:
When she dried herself she became like the towel, when she cleared the dishes she became like the table, and she became like the chair when she sat down.
I still prefer “showing” to “telling” but if one has to “tell” then telling like the above is both graceful and effective.
The prevailing mood of The Appointment is one of tremendous ennui. The narrator is far too worn down to feel any hate, bitterness, or antipathy. She’s reached a stage where resistance is no longer possible. I’ve heard some people say The Appointment is too bleak and hopeless for American readers. I disagree. While many Americans do love their happy endings, readers of highly literary novels love bleakness. They embrace it. I liked the subject matter around which the novel revolved. I just didn’t like that way the author wrote about it.
In the end, I think the book can be summed up in this short paragraph, one of the best paragraphs in the entire novel:
Each shoreline was marked by wooden crosses set in the rocks, bearing the dates on which people had drowned. Cemeteries underwater and crosses all around – portents of dangerous times to come. As if all those round lakes were hungry and needed their yearly ration of meat delivered on the dates inscribed. Here no one dived for the dead: the water would snuff out life in an instant, chilling you to the bone in a matter of seconds.
In The Appointment, the energy it took to monitor one’s thoughts, words, and actions 24/7 was enough to “snuff out life in an instant,” and I think, at times, the narrator, herself, would have preferred being chilled to the bone in one of those watery graves.
Recommended: No. The book is too pointless and burdensome to read. The interior monologue is exhausting. The reader is left with no lasting image, no reward for having read. However, this is the impression the book left on me; I know people who loved it, so always keep the subjective component of literature in mind.
Note: Herta Mueller was both in 1953 in a German-speaking village in Romania. In 1987, two years before the Ceauşescu regime was overthrown, she immigrated to Germany. She writes almost exclusively about life in Romania under Ceauşescu. Herta Mueller won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2009. She lives in Berlin and writes in German.