Country Focus: Romania
The Land of Green Plums
by Herta Müller
translated by Michael Hofman
Originally published as Herztier by Rowohlt Verlag in 1993.
My edition: Picador, 1996. 242 pgs.
Acclaim: Nobel Prize Winner, 2009; winner of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award
Time period: Never explicity stated but sometime during the 1967-1989 rule of Nicolae Ceaușescu
Summary: Lola, a university student, hangs herself using the narrator’s belt and leaves her diary in the narrator’s suitcase. She is posthumously expelled from Romania’s Communist Party in a public ceremony during which hundreds of people applaud. Moved by her deceased roommate’s words and shaken by the callous response to her suicide, the narrator shares the contents of the journal with fellow students Edgar, Kurt and Georg. Bound by their mutual fear of the secret police who relentlessly search dorm rooms for anything (like Lola’s diary) that could be construed as threatening to the state, the four form a close friendship. They keep their spirits up by indulging the forbidden: reading books, writing poetry and taking photographs. After graduation, the narrator remains in the city but the young men leave to take jobs in other towns. The foursome send each other letters, placing a single hair inside each envelope to prove its authenticity and using coded language to inform each other of interrogations, searches and danger. They make plans to flee the country, but the persistent Captain Pjele makes their escape unlikely.
Because we were afraid, Edgar, Kurt, Georg, and I met every day. We sat together at a table, but our fear stayed locked within each of our heads, just as we’d brought it to our meetings. We laughed a lot, to hide it from each other. But fear always finds an out. If you control your face, it slips into your voice. If you manage to keep a grip on your face and your voice, as if they were dead wood, it will slip out through your fingers. It will pass through your skin and lie there. You can see it lying around on objects close by.
How The Land of Green Plums reflects Romania:
Indigenous people: N/A
Historical events: The novel takes place during Nicolae Ceaușescu’s repressive Communist rule
Native language: Very few Romanian words and phrases
Food & Drink: The eponymous green plums that the guards devour
Culture: The searches, questioning, and torture that people suspected as subversives had to endure; the grim, unsatisfying lives of Romanian citizens and the distrust they had for one another
Nature: Repeated references to butcher birds, so called because they impale their prey on thorns and other sharp objects. One wonders if Romania’s infamous Vlad the Impaler felt a special kinship for them.
Would I read another book by Müller No. Müller is more literary artist than storyteller and I had to work too hard at cracking The Land of Green Plums to call it an enjoyable read. The first few pages were so vague and confusing that I almost gave the book up, but I am glad that I stuck it out. Müller’s unusual style yields profound insights by the dozens.
A bloody good book
An Irishman, Bram Stoker never visited Transylvania, the central region of Romania that he immortalized in his 1897 novel Dracula. Stories of vampires existed long before Stoker introduced readers to the blood-sucking Romanian Count, but Dracula is the seminal vampire novel. Virtually every piece of vampire fiction since – from Ann Rice’s Interview with a Vampire to Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight – harken back to Stoker’s horror classic.