First published in 1949, George Orwell’s iconic 1984, is a study of a dystopic future where the State has penetrated deep into the life of the citizens and where fear and suspicion rules each and every relationship. Reading Nobel-prize winner Herta Muller 1993 novel The Land of Green Plums is like revisiting 1984. Only this time, the novel is not a product of the writer’s imagination but rather based on everyday experiences in Romania under the dictatorship of Nicole Ceausescu.
The story narrated by an unnamed young woman is about four young people – Edgar, Kurt, Georg, and the narrator herself – who come together after a young woman called Lola commits suicide (or is it murder?) in the hostel where she is a roommate of the narrator. All four come from similar families. They all belong to the German-speaking Minority in Romania, their fathers are former S.S. Men who fought for (and still sing songs in praise of) Hitler, and whose mothers are long-suffering, hard-working women.
The four young people, eager to free themselves from the all-suffocating/ all-pervasive presence of the State indulge in minor subversive activities – reading and collecting books that are banned, composing poems that talk of toppling dictatorships. Their deepest desire is to not turn into a puppet of the State, wearing fear like a second skin:
The gym instructor was the first to raise his hand. All the other hands flew up after his. While raising their hands, everybody looked at the raised hands of the others. If someone’s own hand wasn’t as high as the others’, he would stretch his arms a little farther. People kept their hands up until their fingers grew tired and started to droop and their elbows began to feel heavy and pull downward. Everyone looked around, and since no one else’s arm was lowered, they straightened their fingers again and extended their elbows. Sweat stains showed under the arms; shirts and blouses came untucked. Necks were stretched, ears turned red, lips parted and stayed half-open. Heads kept still, while eyes slid from side to side.
Freedom, however, as they realise eventually can only be gained through two ways: the passport…
But the letters exchanged between the narrator and her mother show that it is not so easy to sever ties:
They have good streets here, but everything’s so spread out. I am not used to asphalt, it makes my feet hurt, and my brain. I get as tired here in a day as I do back home in a year.
That’s not home, other people live there now, I wrote to Mother. Home is where you are now…
And Mother wrote back to me: How would you know where home is? the place where Toni the clockmaker tends the graves, that’s home.
or the slashed wrist/ broken neck/ splattered body…
It is a chilling realisation.
The book does not allow easy access but stick with it. It made me thankful for the little space that is my own.
Incidentally, can anyone tell me the meaning of the original title: Herztier?
First Line: When we don’t speak, said Edgar, we become
unbearable, and when we do, we make fools of
Title: The Land of Green Plums
Author: Herta Muller
Translator: Michael Hofmann
Original Language: German
Original Title: Herztier
Publication Details: London: Granta Books, 1999
First Published: 1993
The Land of Green Plums can be purchased on the Net. I borrowed it from the College Library. [833 M 9132]
Book(s) with similar theme(s)
The Handmaid’s Tale
Read and reviewed as part of the German Literature Month hosted by Caroline and Lizzy.
Submitted for the following challenges: