by Herta Muller
Serpent's Tail (publisher) £7.99
Review by Marc Nash
I'd never heard of the new Nobel Laureate. Just like last year, it looked as though I wouldn't be reading anything deemed as the best in the world. Until the Twitterverse grabbed me by the shoulders and frogmarched me until my nose was pointed at her Nobel lecture. Now I was in love, for this German speaking Romanian talked about language and words, etymology and the lack of neutrality behind all words. Exactly my obsessions as a writer. Words to my ears as it were.
So off to my independent bookstore. He only had two titles in stock. He'd read this one but not the other, so the recommendation by word of mouth process was somewhat redundant. Besides, this book now had a brand new gold sticker on it, "Winner Of The Nobel Prize For Literature 2009". Can't argue with that for a recommendation, now can you?
The book is only 92 pages long. A miller and his wife and daughter await the granting of passports from the Communist authorities to enable them to emigrate. The authorities are taking their own sweet time about it.... So far so Kafka. Kafka however wrote about urban alienation, whereas this is most definitely pastoral. Also Kafka's faceless bureaucracy was not political so much as the judicial arising to enshrine the rights of the new industrial economics. Muller's is clearly about the Communist regime. She writes very skillfully about the traditional life of the hamlet that is both outside time and progress, as well as the small inroads the demands of Communism make upon it. The novel is really a series of daily (stretching into monthly and seasonal) perambulations made by the miller on his delivery rounds as he awaits for the passport itself to come round.
It has the elegant slowness of the turning of the miller's grinding wheels. That's not to say the book is a grind. The language does captivate in parts. Firstly the metaphors she employs, recurring motifs such as a Cabbage White butterfly, the clothes people wear and trade, or the changing associations of the white flour that dusts everything the miller comes into contact with. Then there is the sentence structure itself. Often short, curt even, statements of an action. Followed by another and then a third, but often sparking a significance as the three rub together, again like grain being ground between the wheels.
This has the affect of Muller leading you by the hand, but a very tiny hand which your gentle reader's paw keeps slipping free of, leaving you alone to wander a terribly strange and disorienting landscape, before she grabs hold of you and manages to reorient you once again. (Kafka never lets go of your hand. Ever. But does so with such diffidence). This happens repeatedly, for there is no change of gear. We plod like the ox ploughing in the field, turning at the limits to plant its hoof back in exactly the same hoofprint, only going in the other direction. Is this quite enough for the reader? Across 92 pages it just about holds together. A longer book and who knows? The language is a thing of beauty and worth basking in, but it does make for the sum of the parts overwhelming rather a slight whole.
This can be quite an alien read for the Anglo-American reader. There is none of the forensics of character study we in the West tend to incline towards. Here one thinks of the Impressionists and their play of light and shade. Of Chagall's wispy characters floating above air to demonstrate their emotions. There is also an absurdist tradition of Ionescu and Hasek's "Schweik". This tradition was only enhanced by the experiences of living under State Communism. It is a tradition I am very drawn to, because it does revel in language. Words as the equivalent of Impressionist paint. But my judgement on this particular book is reserved, because I just need to see how it would work over a greater length. In truth, I preferred reading her Nobel lecture.