In announcing that Herta Müller won the 2009 Nobel Prize for Literature, the Swedish Academy said simply that she is someone who, with her poetry and “the frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed.” In The Appointment, the work of hers most recently translated into English, Müller shows that landscape is not limited to the physical.
Müller, born in a German-speaking village in Romania, writes almost exclusively about life in that country under the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceauescu. Although subject to that regime’s repression, she emigrated to Germany in 1987, two years before the Ceauescu regime was overthrown. Her novels reflect not only the bleakness of life in Romania but the government’s pervasive control of it. The Appointment, first published in 1997 and translated into English in 2001 by Michael Hulse and Philip Boehm, is no exception.
The slim novel takes place on a single tram ride. The unnamed female narrator, who works in a state factory making clothes, has been summoned to appear “at ten sharp” for the latest in an increasing number of interrogations by Major Albu. Her crime? Putting handwritten notes in the back pockets of 10 white linen suits being shipped to Italy that said, “Marry me” and signed with her name and address. Another note was found in three pair of trousers bound for Sweden saying, “Best wishes from the dictatorship.” The narrator claims she was not responsible for them or additional notes Albu claims were intended for Norway. She believes they were planted by her supervisor as revenge for her refusing to continue to see him after an ill-advised sexual affair while together on a business trip.
Although the tram ride takes 90 minutes, her various observations and the internal monologue they spark cover the breadth of her life. We learn about her past, her friends and family, daily life and Romanian “expropriation” and other government officials, to name a few. All this appears in the landscape of her thoughts and memories. Although her stream of consciousness takes us various places in time and space, there is a fairly diffuse sense of ennui and antipathy.
She believes there are four possible ways for life to play out. “The first and the best: don’t get summoned and don’t go mad, like most people.” The second is to not get summoned but lose your mind anyway. The third is to get summoned and go mad. The fourth is to get summoned but not go mad. Although the narrator believes she is in that fourth category, questions may occasionally arise. That morning, in fact, she observes “there’s nothing to think about, because I myself am nothing, apart from being summoned.”
The Appointment allows the reader to ultimately piece together a fairly full understanding of the narrator’s past and her experiences. It is, however, far from a linear journey. Even more so than most internal monologues, hers is quite scattershot. Her thoughts and memories jump from one fragment or tale to something she sees on the tram or out the window to another fragment of memory, rarely having any chronological order. As such, it echoes the description of Müller’s prose work used by the presenter at her Nobel Prize ceremony: there is “no epic line, no plot with beginning and end.”
Yet perhaps that is what best describes life under a repressive regime. There is nothing epic in making it through another day or, if there is, it is understood and remains unstated by and among your friends and family. The abrading strain of stifling your speech, emotions and actions could easily make life seem interminable or, at a minimum, genuinely impoverished. The question of who to trust and whether they will betray you also seems to have no end. Müller, who won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 1998 for her novel The Land of Green Plums, plainly conveys that with the style, tone and approach of The Appointment. The question is whether the internal monologue upon which it is built is too fragmented and bleak to find a place with American readers.
The trick is not to go mad.
Herta Müller, The Appointment