Thursday, April 29, 2010


So many of the discussions of access & difficulty in writing, all the questions that continue to bedevil American poets & fictioneers, seem almost indulgent when compared to the same issues faced by writers in Europe. By Wikipedia’s reckoning, Europe consists of some 50 independent states, plus another half dozen “partially recognized” states. With a few notable exceptions, the boundaries of more than a few of these nations have wandered considerably over the past century, often at an appalling cost of life. In spite of attempts such as the European Union, the decline of the region can be measured by the simplest numbers. In 1900, one out of every four people on the planet lived in Europe. Today, it is home to slightly more than one in ten.

When one considers the number of Nobel Prizes awarded to Germans, those who wrote in German or lived in Germany, for writing – from Herman Hesse & Thomas Mann to Gunter Grass & Nelly Sachs, from Heinrich Böll to Herta Müller – it’s difficult to keep in mind that the population of Germany proper is less one-third that of the United States. This is a rich and diverse heritage, one that might be seen as richer still if names such as Sebald, Celan or Benjamin are added to it. But when one looks at the list of Romanian authors awarded the Nobel, the only name is Müller, although Romania is not a small nation – it has twice the population of Greece, roughly the same as New York. Müller is on both rosters because of her heritage as a Banat Swabian, part of the German minority that once made up a sizeable slice of the Romanian population. Today less than 80,000 Swabians still reside in Romania & Müller herself has lived in Germany since 1987. The brutality of Stalin, the brutality of Ceauşecu, two wars, the fact that many Swabians supported Hitler only to be absorbed into perhaps the most brutal Communist dictatorship in the Soviet bloc & an economy that was all too often desperate, reduced the Swabian presence over the past century by more than 90 percent.

The Land of Green Plums, Müller’s novel translated by Michael Hoffman, which won the 1998 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award directly addresses this circumstance. It’s a historic fable of a situation with which few Germans can be expected to identify but which is likely to make Romanian readers cringe at their history. Further, Müller’s German is said to be inflected with Swabian touches that translate into difficulty for the hypothetical “average” German (albeit not in Hoffman’s translation, which tends toward a minimalist prose with only one notable quirk, the presumption that most readers will call mom-and-pop shops, part grocer, part café, bodegas, a word in the US that distinctly marks itself as “New York”).

 I won’t recount the plot line here (you can find it in some detail in Wikipedia) other than to note that it’s a parable for Swabian life in Romania as such. For the dwindling population of Swabians remaining after World War 2, Romania is less of a home than a prison. The question is not will this imprisonment make you desperate, make you degrade yourself, lead directly to your destruction, but rather how, at what pace, and along which route. The four main characters routinely talk about the futility of escape & the inevitability of their attempts to do so. It can only end badly & when it does no one is surprised.

What is perhaps most intriguing about this book are the attempts on the part of the four to communicate without actually speaking words that, were they heard or read, would invariably lead to their destruction. Letters are never about what they speak of. Envelopes are examined to see if a tell-tale hair is included, and if so what kind. A woman who is known to function as an informant is understood as abject. The one person who is free of such restraints is a parent suffering the final stages of dementia.

As the volume that received the IMPAC award, it’s fair to presume The Land of the Green Plums was a contributing element in Müller receiving the Nobel. Therefore, it’s fair to ask, is this a great book? In Hoffman’s translation, I think the answer has to be Not Quite. It’s a good book & a sad one, and in some obvious ways an important story, tho oft told. But what I don’t get – what doesn’t get through the translation – is something I would recognize as the shimmer of Müller herself. There is no signature to her style that I might recognize here, although that might not be her fault in the slightest.

This doesn’t mean that the book isn’t compelling – it is, completely. But reading it, feeling pulled through the mounting sadness, Green Plums reminded me that Tetris, the first great computer game, was a profoundly Soviet bloc experience. Geometric shapes drop from the sky and your job is to arrange them so as to complete a row. Otherwise it will sit there and build up and completing the next row up becomes more difficult since the pieces no longer have so far to fall. Gradually the game area fills up with the chaos of incomplete rows until you can’t do anything at all. As the room to maneuver dwindles, the pace of the falling pieces increases. The purpose of the game is not to win, merely to postpone losing.


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