2009 Nobel Prize winner Herta Muller’s The Passport describes a Romanian village habituated by a German-speaking minority during Ceausescu’s stifling dictatorship. The story is familiar enough: A man longs for a passport to escape his bleak surroundings. He is tormented by the past; the weather mimics his various pains and frustrations. The man determines that he must sacrifice his own daughter to escape to the West. Mythic in its melancholy.
However, Muller avoids a simplistic, fable-esque rendering of this story in her masterful telling. The novel is dense and poetic, rich with specific histories. Horrific elements are surreal and often painterly in her wording, though no less horrific. Death is foretold with fatalistic accuracy--by a melon, a dahlia, a tree. Time passes like a cut forms, dries, and heals into a scar, as the grass turns brown in a season:
“When it’s light outside, Windisch goes to the mill pond. He kneels down in the grass. He looks at his face in the water... “Windisch has a crooked, white scar under his eye.
“A reed is bent. It opens and closes beside his hand. The reed has a brown blade” (22).
A woman remembers the hunger that drove her to prostitution in Russia:
“Her stomach was a hedgehog...When the snow melted the second time, grass soup grew beneath their shoes. Katharina sold her woollen blanked for ten slices of bread. The hedgehog pulled in its spines for a few hours” (74-75)
An apple tree eats its own apples and has a devil living inside. A glass tear arrives from a mountaintop in a box tied with silver thread. A young man who has a hole in his head inherited from his family’s long line of taxidermists loves a young woman.
Decidedly, Muller’s sensory flourishes do more than merely prettify a somber tale. Rather, they offer the reader a synesthetic specificity culled from Muller’s thorough, autobiographical understanding of The Passport’s environs. Muller addresses her audience with the respect of an educator: for many, in the West as well as the East, the history she describes is relatively unfamiliar. American author Flannery O’Connor wrote,
“When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock-to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures” (Mystery and Manners, p. 34).
Muller’s synesthetic details, exquisitely drawn throughout The Passport, shade and scream the sorrows and guarded histories of her novel’s world to the effect of “large and startling figures,” as in the following lyrical, mournful passage:
“There was wind in the rain water too. It drove glassy bells through the trees. The bells were dull; leaves whirled inside them. The rain sang. There was sand in the rain’s voice too. And tree-bark” (23).
Find The Passport at Books Actually.
P.S. Leaf through Muller's The Land of Green Plums, winner of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, while you're in the shop!