book review: The Passport by Herta Muller

Sometimes the joiner’s wife is summoned to the priest because of the baptismal certificate, sometimes to the militiaman because of the passport.
The night watchman has told Windisch that the priest has an iron bed in the sacristy. In this bed he looks for baptismal certificates, with the women. “If things go well,” said the night watchman, “he looks for the baptismal certificates five times. If he is doing the job thoroughly, he looks ten times. With some families the militiaman loses and mislays the applications and the revenue stamps seven times. He looks for them on the mattress in the post office store room with the women who want to emigrate.”

Imagine a small, claustrophobic and corrupt community that offers only one release through a passport and movement abroad. Add to the misery the environment of a dictatorship and the prospect that life in the West might not be much better and it is a world of pain and disappointment that tests the human resolve to the limit.

Muller uses the story of a miller, Windisch, and his attempt to get his wife and daughter passports to get out of the Romanian village into Germany as a tale that could be applied to thousands elsewhere.

The miller bribes the mayor with corn and hopes that he is inching closer to getting his passport but the only real bargaining chip he has is his daughter who he will have to send to sleep with the customs and parish officials who can speed through the paperwork.

The bitterness that leaves and the damage it does to the family is taken with them as they finally manage to leave.

But there are other things that you are left with as an experience reading this book. One is the idea that people can react differently to dictatorship and some will unfortunately close their minds to the ambition to gain freedom and will choose to remain victims.

The other is the style. Having read the Land of Green Plums the same lyrical, poetical style is on display here and although it is perhaps initially difficult to get into the Muller groove, once there the book flows along.

This might be a fairly slim volume but it is describing a world that most of its readers in the West would never have experienced and one that shows that even in the darkest despair there is always hope and the pull of freedom is an incredibly strong one.

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