[T]here's nothing to think about, because I myself am nothing, apart from being summoned. - Herta Müller, The Appointment
After Herta Müller won the Nobel Prize in 2009 I, I imagine like a number of others, went out and tracked down a copy of one of her books to see what the fuss was all about. Like many Nobel laureates I’d never heard of her before and felt bad about that. The book I ended up reading was The Passport which I reviewed here. In my article I included the following quote:
A year after my departure from Romania in 1987, Jenny came to visit in Berlin. Since the time of the harassments in the factory she had been my closest friend. Even after I had been sacked we saw each other almost daily. But when I saw her passport in our Berlin kitchen, and in it additional visas for France and Greece, I said to her face: "You don't get a passport like that for nothing, what have you done to get it." Her answer: "The secret service has sent me, and I absolutely wanted to see you again." Jenny had cancer – she is long dead. She told me that her task was to investigate our flat and our daily habits. When we get up and go to bed, where we do our shopping and what we buy. On her return, she promised, she would only pass on what had been agreed between us. She lived with us, wanted to stay for a month. With each day my distrust grew. After just a couple of days I rummaged through her suitcase and found the telephone number of the Romanian consulate and a copy of our door key. After that I lived with the suspicion that in all probability she had been spying on me from the beginning, her friendship being a task. – Herta Müller, ‘Securitate in all but name’, sightandsound.com, 31st August 2009
The second novel I ended up reading really explores this situation. When I read that paragraph I was reminded of the bit in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four where Smith runs into his old neighbour Parsons who’s also been arrested and charged with thoughtcrime:
‘Who denounced you?’ said Winston. ‘It was my little daughter,’ said Parsons with a sort of doleful pride. ‘She listened at the keyhole. Heard what I was saying, and nipped off to the patrols the very next day. Pretty smart for a nipper of seven, eh? I don’t bear her any grudge for it. In fact I’m proud of her. It shows I brought her up in the right spirit, anyway.’
I read Nineteen Eighty-Four about forty years ago. The actual 1984 came and went about ten years later without much consequence. Little did I realise that while I was devouring that book a not too dissimilar state existed in the country of Romania. Although Ceaușescu had been head of state since 1965 he’d merely been first among equals on the State Council. In 1974, however, Ceaușescu converted his post of president of the State Council to a full-fledged executive presidency. He also appointed and dismissed the president of the Supreme Court and the prosecutor general whenever the legislature wasn't in session. In practice, from 1974 onward Ceaușescu frequently ruled by decree. Ceaușescu presided over the most pervasive cult of personality within the Eastern Bloc inspired by the personality cult surrounding North Korea's ruling family, the Kims. Initially, the cult of personality was only focused on Ceaușescu himself; however, by the early 1980s, his wife Elena was also a focus of the cult even to the extent that she got credit for scientific achievements which she could never have accomplished.
Like Big Brother Ceaușescu was obsessively concerned about how he was perceived:
Ceaușescu was greatly concerned about his public image. Nearly all official photographs of him showed him in his early 40s. Romanian state television was under strict orders to portray him in the best possible light. Additionally, producers had to take great care to make sure that Ceaușescu's height—he was 1.65m (5-foot 5 inches) tall—was never emphasized on screen. Consequences for breaking these rules were severe; one producer showed footage of Ceaușescu blinking and stuttering, and was banned for three months. – Wikipedia
This is the world in which The Appointment is set. Of course Ceaușescu is never mentioned. It’s not even clear that the city in the novel is Timișoara, that is to say, the capital of the multi-ethnic region of the Banat in which Müller was born. It doesn’t matter. The book’s power is that it could be set in any police state. The narrator, a nameless factory seamstress, has been caught slipping marriage proposals into the back pockets of suit trousers bound for export. (Interestingly I didn’t realise she was nameless until I started comparing other reviews and someone mentioned it.) For this she has been arraigned on a charge of prostitution, though anything is better than a life in a communist sweatshop “cutting, stitching, finishing, ironing and knowing all the time you're not worthy of the final product”. It’s not her children who’ve denounced her but a fellow employee, her supervisor, Nelu:
When I was confronted about the notes, he denied having informed on me. Anyone can deny things. It was just after I had separated from my first husband; white linen suits were being packed up for Italy. After we went on a ten-day business trip together, Nelu expected to keep on sleeping with me. But I’d made up my mind to marry a Westerner, and I slipped the same note into ten back pockets: Marry me, ti aspetto, signed with my name and address. The first Italian who replied would be accepted.
At the meeting, which I was not allowed to attend, my notes were judged to be prostitution in the workplace. Lilli told me Nelu had argued for treason, but had failed to convince them. Since I wasn’t a Party member and since it was my first offense, they decided to give me a chance to mend my ways. I wasn’t fired, which was a defeat for Nelu. The man in charge of ideological affairs personally delivered two written reprimands to my office. I had to sign the original for the records, the copy remained on my desk.
I’ll frame it, I said.
But it doesn’t end there:
[T]hree notes later found in trousers destined for Sweden read: Best wishes from the dictatorship. The notes were just like mine, but I didn’t write them. I was fired.
Where we first meet her is on her way to her appointment with Major Albu of the secret police. She’s not been arrested but every few days she has to travel to be interrogated by him whenever called. The book opens:
I’ve been summoned. Thursday, at ten sharp.
Lately I’m being summoned more and more often: ten sharp on Tuesday, ten sharp on Saturday, on Wednesday, Monday. As if years were a week, I’m amazed that winter comes so close on the heels of late summer.
[T]oday I’m carrying a small towel, a toothbrush, and some toothpaste in my handbag. And no handkerchief, since I’m determined not to cry. Paul didn’t realize how terrified I was that today Albu might take me down to the cell below his office. I didn’t bring it up. If that happens, he’ll find out soon enough.
When reading this I assigned no great significance to the handkerchief but after reading her Nobel acceptance speech I realise that handkerchiefs are a significant emblem in Müller’s life and maybe more can be read into this simple statement.
While travelling her thoughts shift back and forth and gradually a picture builds up of what her life has been like over the past few years and not only her life but that of her parents and grandparents, too, going back to the 1950’s; a brief recent history of Romania then. And an at times a quite surreal portrait it is, too. It’s no wonder Müller's been compared to Kafka. “The trick is not to go mad.” So the book ends. A hard call all things considered.
The narrator of The Appointment is a watcher. All writers are although she’s never described as a writer. But she is a watcher in a country full of watchers. She lives with Paul, an alcoholic, who she met selling illegal aerials. A car sits outside their flat. They assume it’s the Securitate.
For a whole week, when summer came and people began running around in short sleeves, Paul and I were suspicious of a man who to this day walks over from the shops every morning at ten to eight, empty-handed. Every day he steps off the paved sidewalk and follows the paths around the dumpsters and then steps back on the sidewalk and returns to the shops. At one point Paul couldn’t stand it any longer, he stuffed some paper in a plastic bag and set out to follow the man.
It’s an oppressive life. Her neighbour, Herr Micu, has been summoned, too, and ordered to record her movements:
The elevator came and the door opened. It was empty, but Herr Micu stuck his head inside as if to double-check whether someone wasn’t standing on the ceiling. He wedged his foot against the door.
I waited to catch you because I had no idea when you come and when you go. I have to write it down.
I could see the last mailbox on the wall reflected in one of his eyes, or was that just his pupil turning white and square. I didn’t compare it with his other eye, because he whispered:
I’ve already filled two school notebooks, I have to buy them myself.
Feeling bad she buys him a notebook but it turns out its too big so she uses it herself “to record whatever Albu says to me while kissing my hand, or how many paving stones, fence slats, telegraph poles, or windows there are between one spot and another. I don’t like writing, because something that’s written down can be discovered, but I have to do it.”
As she travels she remembers her father, a bus driver who carried on an affair with a vegetable seller, “the woman with the braid” as she calls her; her friend Lilli, who was shot dead on the border while trying to flee with her lover, a sixty-six-year-old retired army officer; her ex-husband, who nearly threw her off a bridge when he found out she wanted to leave him and her lover Paul, whom she first met at the flea market while trying to get a fair price for her wedding ring. She remembers a boy she knew as a girl who died and she remembers, too, her former father-in-law, a man she refers to as “the Perfumed Commissar,” who dispatched her grandparents to a forced labour camp while sitting astride the same white horse he rode when he confiscated the property of others and, of course, how could she forget her fling with Nelu while on a visit to “Button Central” the largest button factory in the country?
Part of a recurring pattern in the book concerns older men who sleep with young women. Lilli is especially prone:
Lilli had loved a hotel porter, a doctor, a dealer in leather goods, a photographer. Old men, to my way of thinking, at least twenty years older than she was. She didn’t call any of them old. She’d say:
He isn’t exactly young.
This list doesn’t include her stepfather who she seduces:
Even a child has secrets, Lilli said to me, and I wasn’t a child anymore. I put the loaf down on the kitchen table and pulled my dress over my head as if it were a handkerchief. That’s how it all started. It went on for over two years, nearly every day except Sundays, and always in a rush, always in the kitchen, we never touched the beds. He’d send my mother to the shop, sometimes there’d be a long line, sometimes a short one, she never caught us.
In a totalitarian states there’s not much comfort to be had. People drink and have sex. Herr Micu once says to Paul:
Every time we have sex it’s a spoonful of sugar for her shattered nerves, the only thing I can use to keep my wife from taking leave of her senses.
Her senses, Paul asked.
Her senses, I said taking leave of her senses, I’m not saying I can restore her mind.
A particularly sad scene plays out when our narrator—in a naïve attempt to take the place of “the woman with the braid”—tries to seduce her own father.
There is a wonderful paragraph that reminded me of Pozzo’s speech from Waiting for Godot, the one where he talks about giving birth astride the grave:
You go out for a walk and the world opens up for you. And before you’ve even stretched your legs properly, it closes shut. From here to there it’s all just the farty sputter of a lantern. And they call that having lived. It’s not worth the bother of putting on your shoes.
I don’t think Beckett would’ve been too displeased if he’d written that himself.
One adjective that crops up all the time in reviews of Müller’s writing—including this book—is ‘difficult’—the reviewer in The New York Times said The Appointment was “more a test of endurance than a pleasure”—and whereas it’s true to say I’ve picked up books that are easier to read, once you get into Müller’s rhythm this is a fairly straightforward text. She could’ve made life easier for her readers by indicating where the flashbacks where because suddenly I’d find myself back on the tram and I’d go, Eh? Also, and I really don’t know why writers think this is cool thing to do, she doesn’t used quotation marks nor—and this is the real puzzler (never come across this one before)—question marks. What harm has the poor question mark ever done anyone? Some of her run-on sentences were a bit unnecessary too; my English teacher would’ve had a field day if I’d submitted stories punctuated like these. These are quirks and although they’re mildly annoying, as I’ve said, once you get used to them they’re no big deal.
‘Surrealist’, ‘magic realist’ and ‘fable-like’ were all expressions that’ve been used to describe The Passport but there’s not much of that here. Some of the writing can be a bit poetic at times as her mind wanders but I wouldn’t say there’s even a lot of that. A nice example though is:
When she dried herself she became like the towel, when she cleared the dishes she became like the table, and she became like the chair when she sat down.
The basic storyline is conveyed in easy-to-read—albeit
The ending is odd and unexpected. Because of a ruckus on the tram she doesn’t get dropped off at the police headquarters; the tram driver insists on dropping everyone off at the next designated stop. Because of this she has to rush and there’s a very good chance that she’ll be late. But because of this she sees someone she didn’t expect to see. And if her world wasn’t in enough turmoil, frozen in that moment she realises she’s going to be late for the first time. If she even goes now. Why not head home and simply await Albu there, him or his henchmen? People can continue to resist as long as they have a good enough reason. When that reason is cast in doubt why go on?
In Native Realm, Czesław Miłosz writes: “Terror is not, as Western intellectuals imagine, monumental; it is abject, it has a furtive glance, it destroys the fabric of human society and changes the relationships of millions of individuals into channels for blackmail.” What is madness? In simple terms I suppose it’s a willingness to accept the unbelievable, that—to hark back to Orwell again—two plus two might actually equal five. Winston accepts that. At least he shows a willingness to accept that. She believes there are four possible ways for life to play out: “The first and the best: don't get summoned and don't go mad, like most people.” The second is to not get summoned but lose your mind anyway like Herr Micu’s wife. The third is to get summoned and go mad. The fourth is to get summoned but not go mad. “The trick is not to go mad.” So says the unnamed narrator on the final page of this novel but is that the last sane thing she’s ever going to say?
You find, in Herta Müller's prose, no epic line, no plot with beginning and end. If the world is ambiguous and opaque, literature must cease to provide a deceptive overview of it. She has said that only fictional surprise allows us to approach reality. She scissors out bits of experience to subsequently amalgamate them, and she has also used collage as a method to write poetry. – Presentation Speech by Professor Anders Olsson, Member of the Swedish Academy, 10 December 2009.
There is nothing epic in a ninety minute tram ride. There is nothing heroic in getting from one day to the next. Winston Smith was not a hero. The woman is this novel is not a heroine. The world only ever gives birth to a handful of heroes at a time. The rest of us muddle through. It’s hardly worth putting on our shoes.
Not everyone will enjoy this book. I’ve read some reviews that’ve only given it one star and others who, although they appreciate the quality of the writing, have got lost somewhere along the line. One said of the ending, “Is her ambiguity incredibly bold or am I incredibly dense?” 108 gave it five stars on Goodreads: Pamela writes, “The Appointment is probably one of the most moving books I have read in the last 5 years, and I log a few books a week...” and Ruth says, “This is a book that will haunt me.” Me, I was touched by it. It lacks the power of Nineteen Eighty-Four—it’s a more intimate book—but in its own quiet way it begs to be remembered.
You can read an excerpt from the book here.