book review – The Land of Green Plums – Herta Muller

“Edgar nodded and Georg said: Everyone’s a villager here. Our heads may have left home, but our feet are just standing in a different village. No cities can grow in a dictatorship, because everything stays small when it’s being watched.”

There is a moment early on in this book when four student friends find that they need to find a place to hide some books. Who can they trust in a state where informers and eyes are watching everywhere? Just hiding a book is something that could potentially land you in hot water so reasonably quickly you are introduced to the author’s world of paranoia and fear.

The world where Georg, Kurt, Edgar and the female narrator occupy is one dominated by Ceausescu and it is a regime that is determined to crush individualism and any potential threat to the state. One of the victims of that regime is Lola who chooses to take her own life early on in the story after she comes up against the brutality of the state.

Her example unites four students who share the same views on the system and the same urge to defy it. Not defy it in terms of demonstrations and political actions but defy it in terms of wanting freedom of thought. The story follows them as they leave college and get jobs in factories where they are constantly kept under surveillance. They meet their nemesis in the secret service who is determined to break them and harasses their families as well as getting the few neutral friends to turn on them.

The style is almost diary like with small to long passages coming on top of each other to give you an idea of what it must be like to live in a society where the fear of the state is the first lesson handed down from parent to child and the consequences of free thought are dire.

Even when they escape the country they can never really escape the fear, the sense of surveillance and the threat from a regime that has to squash anyone who disagrees with them. It might not be easy to follow on occasions and the jerky results of it being clipped passages makes it difficult for the narrative to flow sometimes.

But the feeling it provides is one that is going to be more memorable than the story. The sense of paranoia, fear and the limits to where an individual can escape to when the only real escape is in their head is brilliantly delivered.

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