Friday, 31 May 2013

Book Review: The Passport by Herta Müller
It never is an easy decision to leave home for good, but many people don’t really have a choice. Let’s be honest. Who apart from adventurers and philanthropists would WISH to live in a war zone or just in a region without jobs to make a decent living? Oppression from political and/or religious authorities is another motive to go into exile. Some like Publius Ovidius Naso (Ovid) in 8 A.D. were forced to go, while others crave for a chance to leave. Not so long ago many Romanians like Nobel Prize laureate Herta Müller and the protagonists of her novella The Passport ventured at the bureaucratic troubles involved in legal emigration from a Communist country.

Herta Müller was born in German speaking Niţchidorf in the Banat, Romania, in August 1953. In the 1970s she studied German and Romanian Philology at the University in Timișoara, Romania. As a writer Herta Müller made her debut with a censored version of Nadirs (Niederungen) in Romania in 1982 and was then banned from publishing as a reaction to her criticism of the Communist terror regime of Nicolae Ceauşescu. In 1986 The Passport (Der Mensch ist ein großer Fasan auf der Welt) came out in Germany. The following year, in 1987, she was finally allowed to travel to Berlin where she stayed and still lives. Other important works of the writer that led to her receiving many literary awards, among them the 2009 Nobel Prize for Literature, are Travelling on One Leg (Reisende auf einem Bein: 1989), The Land of Green Plums (Herztier: 1994), The Appointment (Heute wär ich mir lieber nicht begegnet: 1997) and The Hunger Angel (Atemschaukel: 2009). 

In the novella The Passport (the original German title would be Man is Nothing But a Pheasant in the World in English) Herta Müller tells the story of a miller family in a German-speaking village in Romania in the 1980s. Mr. and Mrs. Windisch and their grown-up daughter Amalie, who is working in a kindergarten in town during the week, are waiting for their passports and visa to Germany. Passing by the war memorial and through a deep pot hole on his bicycle every morning, Mr. Windisch counts years and days since the application. Existence is filled with the continuous repetition of activities in the always same desolate environment producing ever again ominous signs of old peasant superstition. To Windisch life seems to stand still, but the perspective of leaving gives him the sense of an ending. Many neighbours have already left or are about to leave, while the necessary permissions of the Windisch family are being delayed by the officials. To get their passports Windisch has gives dozens of flour bags and money to the involved officials, notably to the mayor, the militia man, the post-office woman and the (Catholic) parson. However, the men want more. They want sex in return for the yearned for papers and Windisch is disgusted by the thought of having his beautiful daughter sell her body like his worn-out wife had done to survive in the Soviet gulag after the war.

The simple plot of The Passport is intensified by the description of seemingly unimportant objects and observations that intersperse the entire text. It isn’t easy to read between the lines and to decipher the true meaning of the symbolic language that often reminds me of a game of word associations. Especially the chapter titles leave me with the impression of having been chosen at random. The writing style of Herta Müller is often compared to that of Franz Kafka although in The Passport I don’t see much of a resemblance, yet. The story and its setting may be exaggerated, but not enough to remove them almost beyond recognition from reality and to lift them to a more symbolic as well as universal level. It’s a narrative from the German-speaking minority in a rural area under Nicolae Ceauşescu, hardly more. Maybe Herta Müller's later work reminds of Kafka?

The Passport is the first and only book of Herta Müller that I know so far. I enjoyed the read because it makes think about power and its abuse, but also about the absurdity of certain aspects of life and superstition. It’s not very likely that I’ll ever become this writer’s biggest fan, and yet, I’m more than ready to recommend this novella.


  1. I hated this one, perhaps it sounds better in German.

    I found the language tedious and the story so dark. I wouldn't like to meet any of the characters. They either oozed stupidity or nastiness.
    The fabricated symbolism put me off. Like you, I don't see Kafka anywhere here.

    1. I agree that the language is difficult especially because there are many sentences that don't seem to make any sense or to be completely out of place. It took me a while to get into it and to be able to follow the red thread (and ignore everything that in my eyes didn't support the plot). Towards the end I started to "enjoy" the read.

      As for the story being dark... well, I'm afraid that reality under the Communist regime really was dark. Maybe less than in the novella, but still the story may be appallingly truthful.

      The symbolism may have been a way not to get into too much trouble with the regime - although already the first edition of The Passport was published in Germany. I don't know Herta Müller's previous works, but probably she had developed her personal, very symbolic style already there.

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. Last month I finally read my first book by Muller, The Land of Green Plums. Very challenging read though I deny the Kafka comparison. I am glad I read it though, like you, it did not inspire me to read more by her. My review:


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