When Herta Muller was announced as the winner of this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature I, like many others, had never heard of her. Outside of a small European and academic readership she is little known. In comparison to most of the earlier Laureates her canon of work is not very deep. Many have never been translated from her native German language.
I searched our local libraries trying to find some of her work, and finally found a copy of her 1994 novel, The Land of Green Plums, at the James Madison University Library. Surprising to me that in the land of academics, this book was on the shelf. I wanted to like this book. After all the controversy over the Obama award, I wanted to be able to argue the infallibility of the Nobel Prize Committee.
Herta Muller was born in Romania in 1953. Her father was a Nazi SS officer during World War II, and her mother was sent to a concentration camp in 1946. She was raised by her grandmother. They lived in a German speaking part of Romania which set them apart as outsiders in the eyes of the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu.
The Land of Green Plums is an autobiographical narrative of a young woman’s attempt to start her life under a very repressive political regime. This young woman, we are never given her name, is privileged to be able to attend a university where she can learn a profession. She lives in a dormitory with five other girls who we learn little about except for one. Lola is a young girl from the provinces who is very poor. She has to borrow clothes from the other girls. In her attempt to survive in the university she stoops to prostitution and subsequently hangs herself with a rope borrowed from our protagonist.
After graduation “our girl” gets a job in a factory. She meets three male friends and forms a very platonic relationship: no sex, albeit, she does have a short fling with a married coworker. As people from the German speaking part of Romania they come under the suspecting eye of the local police who harasses them. They talk about trying to escape from Romania but hear stories of people being killed trying to leave.
For no apparent reason she is fired from her factory job and tries to work as a tutor for some wealthy kids, but this does not work out either. Her, along with her three male friends, goal is to immigrate to Germany where they end up at the end of the novel.
The story reads like a prose poem rather than a novel. This could be in part because it was translated from German by Michael Hoffman, a poet. The narrative is stiff and non-engaging lacking the fluidity of language that invites the reader into the story. The characters are one dimensional like they are cut from cardboard. Her three male friends are named for us but are interchangeable lacking no real definition. The overriding goal of the characters is to immigrate to Germany and the danger of escaping is to create a tension in the story line. However, we find that when they are ready to leave, they simply go down to the passport office and get a visa. Then move to Germany.
We always have to question when we read a translation: is it the story or the translation we are judging. Since, I can-not read this in German I can’t answer. But, I found the story flat and lacking any real dramatic direction, and the characters unappealing. The single imagery in the novel is the title, The Land of Green Plums. The ever present soldiers stuff the green plums in their pockets to eat while on duty. The grandmother tells the girl that you should not eat green plums they will give you diarrhea.