After two weeks in Prague, it was time to head to Berlin, which meant I needed some new reading material! I visited in Prague’s Big Ben Bookshop, where I bought a copy of Herta Müller’s The Appointment. I’d never read Müller, who is originally from Romania but has been living in Berlin for over 20 years, but ever since she became only the twelfth woman since 1901 to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, I’ve wanted to learn more. I’m so glad I finally got around to it. Although I agree with Francine Prose from her Harper’s article years ago that the “scent of a woman’s ink” is a notion that is preposterous and misogynist, I must confess that after reading three books by (and about) Czech men, it felt, to read this book by (and about) a woman, like home.
The Appointment is lovely, dark and deep. Like Mrs. Dalloway — one day, swirling memories — but set within a socialist regime. And instead of buying flowers for a party, the main character is headed on a tram towards a “summons.” I adored especially the language: the lyrical, repeating and morphing images of colors and dreams and objects (the leaning apartment building, the woman with the braid, the motorcycle, the red poppies) and the ever-present dead (best friend, father, playmate, shoemaker).
Throughout, the book, the narrator asks big questions about how to live in a world that tries to make you mad:
I was wondering about the games that life plays, and on my way back from the shoemaker I went through all the possible ways of getting fed up with the world. The first and the best: don’t get summoned and don’t go mad, like most people. The second possibility: don’t get summoned, but do lose your mind, like the shoemaker’s wife and Frau Micu who lives downstairs by the main entrance. The third: do get summoned and do go mad, like the two women in the mental home. Or else the fourth: get summoned but don’t go mad like Paul and myself. Not particularly good, but in our case the best option. A squashed plum was lying on the pavement, the wasps were eating their fill, the newly hatched ones as well as the older wasps. What must it be like when a whole family can fit on a single plum. The sun was being pulled out of the city into the fields. At first glance its makeup looked a little too garish, especially for the hour; at second glance it appeared to have been shot—red as a bed of poppies, Lilli’s officer had said. Yes, that’s the fifth possibility: to be very young, and unbelievably beautiful, and not insane, but dead. You don’t have to be named Lilli to be dead.
What a beautiful passage. I love how it moves through the four options and seems to settle more or less comfortably on the fourth. Then there’s the image of the plum on which an entire wasp family feeds. Then there’s the sun, being “pulled out of the city into the fields.” The sun looks, “at first glance…too garish” for so early in the day. At second glance, though, it “appeared to have been shot–red as a bed of poppies,” and now the narrator is thinking of the death of her best friend Lilli, and she comes to a haunting fifth possibility. Such delicate, poetic transitions from ideas to images and back.
Interestingly, although the narrator asks big and small questions (and big questions disguised as small ones) throughout the book, there are no question marks. What must it be like when a whole family can fit on a single plum. This style (which reminded me of Gertrude Stein) conveys the futility of asking questions in a world where you can lose your job or your life for expressing disagreement or discontent with the authorities, where you can be framed by coworkers who hold petty grudges. You can ask the question so long as you accept that there is no answer, or that the answer is not available to you and couldn’t help you if it were. What must it be like when a whole family can fit on a single plum.
Check out this link at Red Pepper for more on her life and work.
And this link to her Nobel acceptance speech.