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.
Having read Land of Green Plums you are reintroduced to Muller’s style within a matter of words. Her prose has a poetic lyrical quality that paints pictures that are dream like as they weave in the past and present.
She introduces you to a Romanian German town where most of the inhabitants seem to have ambitions to get their passports and move to West Germany. Of those left behind a decent proportion are involved in the corruption that surrounds the passport application process or are too old to care about moving.
The story centres on Windisch the miller who has been planning to get his passport for a couple of years, bribing the mayor with flour, but so far has not been successful.
He roams the village watching those who manage to get a few steps further down the line towards escape. Can he get there as well before his marriage totally falls apart and he has to play his daughter as a trump card.
A review will follow soon…
“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.
There is a challenge with this book because of the way it is delivered in bite sized chunks. That makes it a rather jerky read and sometimes difficult to follow.
But the positive far outweigh that criticism and the writing is beautiful and you find yourself sitting reading it with a notepad on the lap taking down page references to remember passages afterwards.
One of the ones that will stick in my mind describes a father and his son heading to the station so the young man can head away from the village to the city and to college:
“My father, said Georg, took the bicycle to the station so that he wouldn’t have to walk so close to me on the way there, and so that, on the way back , his empty hands wouldn’t remind him he was returning home alone.”
The world Muller describes is a horrible one of oppression with then main four characters living in a nightmare where only their thoughts are safe from the state. Living under a dictatorship every sign of non-cooperation brings persecution and some even take the suicide option rather than go on living with the pressure to lie to yourself everyday.
“…other people manage to to clap along with everyone else and make money.”
You fear for the narrator and her three friends as the second half of the book unfolds.
A review will be posted soon…