The Land of Green Plums
|The Land of Green Plums|
First edition (German)
Metropolitan Books (U.S.)
Published in English
|15 November 1996|
|Media type||Print (Hardback and Paperback)|
The Land of Green Plums (German: Herztier) is a novel by Herta Müller, published in 1994 by Rowohlt Verlag. Perhaps Müller's best-known work, the story portrays four young people living in a totalitarian police state under the Soviet-imposed communist dictatorship in Romania, ending with their emigration to Germany. The narrator is an unidentified young woman belonging to the German minority, much like the author herself. Müller said the novel was written "in memory of my Romanian friends who were killed under the Ceauşescu regime".
Like many of Müller's books, The Land of Green Plums illustrates the position of dissidents from the German minority in Romania, who suffered a double oppression under the regime of Nicolae Ceauşescu. The rural German-speaking community tries to preserve its culture by enforcing traditional rules; once the main characters escape this environment through university study in the city, they suffer, as political dissidents, the oppression exercised by the totalitarian regime. Those who flee the country for Germany find themselves cultural outcasts: they are not considered German but rather Eastern Europeans. Critics read the novel as giving testimony of abuse and the ensuing trauma. Normal human relationships are rendered impossible by the lack of freedom of expression; the threat of violence, imprisonment, and execution; and the possibility that any personal friend may be a traitor. Written in a paratactic style, full of flashbacks and time shifts, the very language of the book reflects trauma and political oppression.
After its publication in German and its translation into Dutch, the novel received moderate attention, but it gained an international audience when the English translation by Michael Hofmann was published in 1996. In 1998 this translation won the prestigious International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the largest prize given for a single work of fiction published in English. Following the announcement of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Literature for Herta Müller, The Land of Green Plums entered the bestseller list on Amazon.com.
The first character introduced to the reader is a young girl named Lola, who shares a room with five other girls, including the narrator, in a college dormitory. Lola records her experiences in a diary, relating her efforts to escape from the totalitarian world of school and society by riding the buses at night and having brutish, anonymous sex with men returning home from factory work. She also has an affair with the gym teacher, and soon joins the Communist Party. This first part of the book ends when Lola is found hanging in the closet; she has left her diary in the narrator's suitcase.
Having supposedly committed suicide and thus betrayed her country and her party, Lola is publicly denounced in a school ceremony. Soon after, the narrator shares Lola's diary with three male friends, Edgar, Georg, and Kurt; Lola's life becomes an escape for them as they attend college and engage in mildly subversive activities—"harbouring unsuitable German books, humming scraps of banned songs, writing to one another in crude code, taking photographs of the blacked-out buses which carry prisoners between the prison and the construction sites." The four are from German-speaking communities; all receive mail from their mothers complaining about their various illnesses and how their children's subversiveness is causing them trouble; all have fathers who were members of the SS during World War II. They hide the diary and other documents, including photographs and books, in the well of a deserted summerhouse in town. Very quickly it becomes clear that an officer of the Securitate, Captain Pjele, is interested in the four and begins to subject them to regular interrogations. Their possessions are searched, their mail opened, and they are threatened by the captain and his dog.
After graduation the four go their separate ways, but they remain in contact through letters and regular visits, although their letters are read by the Securitate. They take menial jobs: Kurt works in a slaughterhouse as a supervisor, for instance, and the narrator translates German manuals in a factory. A fifth member, Tereza, befriends the narrator even as it becomes clear that she is acting partly on Pjele's orders.
The lives of all five become more miserable, and each conforms to the regime's demands even as they lose their jobs for apparently political reasons. They discuss fleeing the country, and Georg is the first to do so; weeks after he arrives in Germany, he commits suicide by jumping out the window of a Frankfurt hotel. The narrator and Edgar likewise acquire passports and go to Germany, still receiving death threats. Kurt remains in Romania, no longer working, and later found hanged. The novel ends with the same passage as it began: "When we don't speak, said Edgar, we become unbearable, and when we do, we make fools of ourselves".
The narrator, Edgar, Georg, and Kurt hail from similar backgrounds. All are German Romanian and students at the same university. They all suffer persecution, and oppose the regime. The characters—especially Edgar, Georg, and Kurt—are quite deliberately not developed in great detail, as noted by critics. "Characterization is not the point here. Müller is primarily a poet", and this poetic interest likewise is said to explain the lack of chapter organization and of transitional phrases. Only two of the six main characters who suffer oppression survive: Lola dies by hanging, Georg commits suicide after fleeing to Germany, Kurt is found hanged, and Tereza, the narrator's friend who betrays her to the Securitate, dies of cancer.
The novel is partly autobiographical. Like her narrator, Müller comes from the German-speaking minority in Romania, the Banat Swabians, with a former SS man for a father. Trained as a teacher, she lost her position after refusing to cooperate with the Securitate, and left for Germany in 1987. In a 1998 interview she mentioned that real persons can be recognized in some of her characters, including one in The Land of Green Plums: "That [recognition of characters] was already the case in my previous book [The Land of the Green Plums]. Because my best girlfriend died young, and because she had betrayed me, and because I had to despise her and could not stop loving her." In an earlier interview, with the Danish newspaper Politiken, she went into greater detail about her friend, depicted in the novel as Tereza:
I had a good friend in Romania, who came and visited me in Germany, when I had finally escaped from the country. She was in the service of the Securitate, as it turned out. She had left her passport lying out, and I saw it by chance one morning, when she was out. No ordinary person had such a passport with visas to Greece, to Italy, and Spain. She confessed everything, and shortly after I naturally had to throw her out. This happened in the same period that I was receiving death threats like many others who had fled from Romania, and I kept far away from Romanians I did not know or could not count on. But she was my friend.
The novel approaches allegory in many of its details, such as the green plums of the title. Mothers warn their children not to eat green, unripe plums, claiming that they are poisonous. Yet the novel regularly depicts police officers gorging themselves on the fruit: "The officers' lack of constraint in engulfing the fruit parallels the remorseless persecution of the human race" under Nicolae Ceauşescu. The green plums also suggest childhood, or regression into childhood: "The narrator watches the Romanian police guards in the streets of the city as they greedily pocket green plums ... 'They reverted to childhood, stealing plums from village trees.' Ms. Muller's vision of a police state manned by plum thieves reads like a kind of fairy tale on the mingled evils of gluttony, stupidity and brutality."
Language and style
Critics have recognized Müller's writing as political, "as a form of manifest resistance against totalitarian claims to power," and have studied her "complex and ambiguous imagery." According to Larry Wolff, reviewing the book for The New York Times, the poetic quality of the language is essentially connected to its author's objective: "the author seeks to create a sort of poetry out of the spiritual and material ugliness of life in Communist Romania." Critics have generally shown appreciation for the novel's language, as did Nicholas Lezard, writing in The Guardian:
The prose, while simple at the level of the sentence (and we can safely assume that Hofmann's translation is very faithful to the original), is shifty, blurred, to the point where at times we are left unsure as to what exactly is going on – a deliberate flight from causation, quite understandable in a country where everyone (even, we learn, the horses) has been driven mad by fear.
Though the novel's language, and Müller's language in general, is praised for its precision--Peter Englund, secretary of the Swedish Academy, noted her "extreme precision with words"—many things are left unsaid. As a reviewer for The Australian noted, the narrator is never named, the words "totalitarian" and "liberty" never appear in the book, and even Ceausescu, usually referred to as the "dictator," is named only twice, first when one of the characters (a Jewish WWII survivor) notes how the greeting "ciao" is also the first syllable of the dictator's name and again when a comparison is made between Ceausescu, Hitler, and Stalin.
Psychological trauma caused by fear permeates the novel: "Fear, isolation, and abandonment characterize the lives of the first-person narrator and her three friends....Müller describes how fear acquires a life of its own; it becomes independent of the subject's will." One critic argues that "Herztier was written in response to the trauma of life under the Ceauşescu dictatorship, when the citizens of Romania lived in constant fear of the secret police or Securitate." As Müller said in an interview, this fear in the novel is autobiographical as well.
According to Beverley Driver Eddy, The Land of Green Plums presents trauma as well as its testimony; the narrator gives her own testimony, and relates it to the testimony of her friends' suffering. The first of these is Lola, the friend who supposedly kills herself; her testimony is preserved in her diary, in which she wrote of her animalistic sexual exploits with nameless men and her struggle to cope with the guilt of having joined the Communist Party in an effort to better herself. For the narrator, preserving Lola's notebook (and sharing it with her three friends) becomes of paramount importance, especially since the memory of Lola was erased days after her death by the Party establishment. Additional complexity comes from Lola's testimony being interwoven in the narrator's own—"a testimony within a testimony." Müller herself, in an interview published in 1998, explained that "she is concerned with showing that the childhood experiences have been internalised by the narrator, and that the traumas of the frightened, non-conformist child are replicated to the larger traumas of the adult dissident." In the image of the weeds cut down by the narrator's father, an image presented early in the novel, the parallel between the father and the dictator is evidenced: "both 'make cemeteries' without fear of retribution." One symptom of the trauma this causes in its victims is disconnection, the strain of friendship resulting from lack of trust, disrupting normal human relationships for the remainder of the victim's life; Müller's novel portrays this disconnection and the ongoing trauma for survivors, even after the fall of the dictatorship.
Other critics have focused on different effects of trauma in the novel and in Müller's work in general. Lyn Marven argues that the Müller's poetics and style, characterized by paratactic as well as syntactic and narrative gaps, illustrates one of the effects of trauma: "Trauma disrupts the structures of memory....Trauma cannot be integrated into narrative memory and exists only as a gap or blank spot; it therefore cannot be articulated, and returns in the form of surprisingly literal flashbacks, hallucinations, or dreams." Marven notes another effect: a "distorted body image" that often gives rise to a "radical metonymy," a fragmentation, surfacing most notably in a scene where Pjele, during an interrogation, lists the narrator's clothes and possessions, to which the narrator responds by listing her own body parts: "1 pr. eyes, 1 pr. ears, 1 nose, 1 pr. lips, 1 neck." Marven notes that Müller's collages, which Marven calls "central to Müller's œuvre," evidence the same fragmentation, and says that her "increasingly readable" prose (signaled also by Grazziella Predoui, who notes that Müller's prose is developing from parataxis toward more complicated syntax) coupled with recent collages moving toward narrative might suggest that there is "a possibility of overcoming trauma."
The situation of the Banat-Swabians, the German-speaking minority in Romania, is a recurring theme in Müller's writing, and it is one of the central themes of The Land of Green Plums, investigated in detail in Valentine Glajar's 1997 article "Banat-Swabian, Romanian, and German: Conflicting Identities in Herta Müller's Herztier." The Banat-Swabian community, which the narrator is a member of, was described by Müller as extremely ethnocentric; while they had no desire to emigrate to Germany, they exerted an almost totalitarian control especially on their children to keep them in their community. Müller had already addressed this topic in her first work, Niederungen, translated as Nadirs in English, in which the German community holds on to its language and habits in an attempt to deny the Romanian dictatorship that rules them; one critic characterized this communal attempt in Niederungen as a "mechanistically followed tradition".
According to Glajar, this is the world of the narrator's mother, who writes of her sicknesses in her letters in the hope of keeping her daughter emotionally connected to her home village. The narrator's father was a member of the SS (as were Müller's father and uncle), and thus presents a troubling example of Germanness. The novel proposes a tension inside Romania between the culturally totalitarian atmosphere of the Banat-Swabian community and the politically totalitarian world of Timişoara, where the main characters attend college—between German and Romanian. But the main characters who move to Germany quickly discover that although they were German in Romania, they are Romanian in Germany. They face social and linguistic difficulties, resulting in Georg's suicide a few weeks after his arrival in Frankfurt.
The book attracted academic interest very quickly, and scholars have discussed it in at least three distinct categories: language and style, often in relation to the politics of totalitarianism; trauma studies, given the psychological pressure on the novel's characters, who grow up under a totalitarian regime; and ethnographic and literary studies of the German minority in Romania. On the latter topic, Valentine Glajar, now at Texas State University, published an article in 1997, and Herztier is one of the four titles treated in her 2004 monograph on German-language literature from Eastern Europe, The German Legacy.
Attention in the press
In the German press, the novel's publication generated modest but positive attention. Rolf Michaelis reviewed the novel at length in Die Zeit in October 1994, analyzing the function of fear and praising the book as a "poetic epic", comparing transitions and structure to those found in Homer. "Herta Müller", he wrote, "does not simply use the German language; she makes it her own, in an incomparable way. She invents her own language." A favorable review of the Dutch translation appeared in the national daily newspaper Trouw in 1996. The English translation was likewise favorably reviewed: a review in The San Diego Union-Tribune said "this heartbreaking tale is bitter and dark, yet beautiful". Larry Wolff, in his review for The New York Times, described the book as "a novel of graphically observed detail in which the author seeks to create a sort of poetry out of the spiritual and material ugliness of life in Communist Romania".
Radio Free Europe reported that the novel is a favorite of Mohammad-Ali Abtahi, the Iranian pro-democracy activist, who read it (in the Persian translation by Gholamhossein Mirza-Saleh) shortly after being released from prison in 2009.
On 18 May 1998, the announcement was made that the novel and its English translation had been awarded the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award; Müller received £75,000, and translator Michael Hofmann £25,000. In its comments the jury remarked on the main themes of the novel—politics, language, and allegory—in their report:
The novel brilliantly evokes a world of cruelty and oppression. Set in Communist Romania under the Ceaucescu dictatorship, The Land of Green Plums portrays the lives of a group of dissident students and teachers whose integrity is continuously assailed and sometimes betrayed. Herta Müller's stark and vivid prose explores a terror-stricken society of mendacity and political slander. The "green plums" of the title stand in part for truth and its brutal suppression in a world of interrogators and informers, where speaking out can become a matter of life and death.
The author's style, achieves a spartan eloquence, and the novel's individual characters are powerfully drawn.
This elegantly understated book is at once bleak and beautiful, humorous and heartbreaking.
The IMPAC award drew a great deal attention to the novel, certainly in the United States, and by the end of the year it had been published in paperback in the US by Hydra Books/Northwestern University Press.
2009 Nobel Prize in Literature
In 2009, Herta Müller won the Nobel Prize in Literature. During the presentation ceremony, Anders Olsson, member of the Swedish Academy, referred to The Land of Green Plums as "a masterful account of the flight of a group of youths from the terror regime". Immediately following the announcement sales of this and Müller's other novels (only five had been translated into English by then) skyrocketed: "On Thursday morning, when the award was announced, The Land of Green Plums, by all accounts Müller's best book, was No. 56,359 on Amazon.com; by the close of business that day, it was No. 7".
The Land of Green Plums is the second novel published by Müller since leaving Romania, after Der Fuchs war damals schon der Jäger (1992). It appeared in German in 1994, followed two years later by the English translation. The hardback was published in the United States by Metropolitan Books in November 1996. A Dutch translation also appeared in 1996, but although French-language Swiss media had shown interest in the author the novel had not been translated into French by 1998. In May 1998 the author and its translator were awarded the IMPAC Award. Paperback editions of Hoffman's translation were published in the United Kingdom by Granta later that year and again in September 1999 (with new cover art), and in the United States by Northwestern University Press in November 1998. In November 2010, after Müller had won the Nobel Prize for Literature, a new paperback was released in the United Kingdom and the United States by Picador.
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