Book review: The Land of Green Plums - life behind an ‘Iron Curtain’

Published: July 12, 2011
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A profound illustration of a totalitarian state.

A profound illustration of a totalitarian state.

Book: The Land of Green Plums

Author: Herta Müller

Translated: Michael Hofmann

Genre: Fiction

Publisher: Granta Books

Excerpt:

“I knew the dwarf lady on Trajan Square. She had more scalp than hair, she was deaf and dumb, and she wore a grass pigtail like the discarded chairs underneath the old people’s mulberry trees. She lived off the rubbish from the greengrocer’s shop. Every year she got pregnant by Lola’s men, who came off the late shift at midnight. It was dark in the square. The dwarf lady couldn’t run away in time, because she couldn’t hear their approach. And she couldn’t scream.”

It’s not easy to read or write about books that carry tales of oppression and dictatorship, particularly those based on the East European dictatorships. Such dreadful stories give you goose bumps; leave your eyes wide open and your heart filled with sorrow.

The Land of Green Plums by Herta Müller relates a similar tale. The author was born in Romania in 1953. She was a teacher by profession and had to emigrate in 1987, and after refusing to cooperate with Ceausescu’s Securitate, she lost her job and suffered repeated threats.

The original book is in German but has been translated into English by Michael Hofmann. It is written in an autobiographical style but despite that, is not an easy book to get into. During the first 40 pages, understanding the story is somewhat difficult, but then it begins to cast its spell. The more you read, the more you want to find out what happens next to the four friends who are the central characters of the book. They are a rebellious lot who have come from impoverished provinces in search of better prospects in the city.

The novel casts a spell over the reader and is difficult to put down once you become attached to the characters. Müller’s description of emotions and feelings, while living under monitored and claustrophobic surroundings, are heart throbbing.

She uses her powerful imagery to make the reader understand how morose life was during the Communist Romanian dictatorship. The extent of vulnerability that was present under the facade of security is evident in the excerpt above. The author’s expressions convey how fragile relations were during that time of oppression.

Everyone had a friend in every wisp of cloud

That’s how it is with friends where 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.

The narrator appears to be very bold; she is rebellious and survived Lola’s death, her father’s death and Captain Pjele’s demeaning interrogation but couldn’t take being sacked from her job as she refused to join the Communist party. That was the first time she shed tears.

All four friends deal with their sadness and sorrow through jokes and poetry and meeting and laughing, besides planning to emigrate or waiting to die.

Life under totalitarian rule was difficult, especially if one refused to join the all-powerful Party. The characters showed a great deal of patience, fought hard, but in the end, the only survivors were the narrator and Edgar. All committed suicide but in reality, the blame for their deaths can be laid at the doorstep of the State.

The novel ends with Muller’s curse to Captain Pjele. His disgusting interrogation, monitoring and threats haunted her even after emigration.

The book opens and ends with “when we don’t speak, said Edgar, we become unbearable, and when we do, we make fools of ourselves.”

Despite the heavy subject matter, the novel is not depressing at all; in fact, it encourages life and the ability of humanity to rise beyond the reality of pain and oppression.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 9th, 2011.

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