The Land of Green Plums (1993) – Herta MÜLLER

If you win the Nobel Prize for Literature, you can expect sales to pick up a bit. That, and the rate of people translating you out of your native language. Hey, it works. That’s the only reason I was looking for Müller’s work. I don’t think even I, who has pretty pretentious taste, could claim I was looking for Romanian literature written in German about the Romanian dictatorship of the mid 20th century.

A group of students are struggling to live under the rule of a despotic dictatorship, where everyone around you is possibly a spy. As the days pass, these students must learn to deal with what is happening around them, with the possibility of young love, with the chance of being killed for thinking, and with the frightening reality of escaping such a rule.

There is a gratuitously large amount of fiction dealing with life under dictatorships – from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four to Kadare’s The Palace of Dreams. So why is Müller’s work worthy of a Nobel Prize, when it could quite easily be argued that this genre has been done to death? And there are two reasons that I can see.

The first is the immediacy and simplicity of Müller’s language in telling the tale. There is a lot to be said for sparse language stylings – and that’s not just an excuse for bad writing. Müller’s language tends towards the simple, but not the simplistic, and this has probably a lot to do with her background in poetry. She does have a way with language, and that creates some beautiful imagery and character insights with language that no one could attack as being purple. In many ways, it is almost childish in its simplicity, but that is the beauty of Müller’s work – she does not have to rely on overwrought language in order to create a terrifying world.

Having said that, this creates something of a problem with the plot – which is certainly not non-existent, but rather, it becomes secondary to the small images Müller seems more concerned in creating. As I say, there is definitely a plot, but it is far more episodic in nature, and the things that Müller leaves unsaid are almost as important as the things she does say. Instead of overwriting the important set pieces, she prefers to simply write the other things – the tiny reactions to these big events, or the concurrent story of an unnamed Romanian family as we follow the lives of these students.

The second reason, then, for justification of Müller’s work? The bleakness and simplicity of language translates into her characters and situations. The people we follow here are young people, and the choice is not arbitrary. These university students – people, then, in the prime of youth; people we see as perhaps the most politically active and opinionated – have been completely silenced and neutered. And that’s what makes this novel so tragic. There are no big political statements, and I don’t think Müller is trying to overthrow any government with this work, but she is simply trying to show just how bleak this life is. For all of these people, death – and suicide in particular – seem to be everyday thoughts.   nothing redeeming here. And even the chance of escape does not offer immediate respite – trying to escape will more than likely get you killed anyway, so the whole thing is, arguably, pointless. You can either die here, or die trying to get out.

Along with the five students, the most prominent character is that of Captain Pjele, a sadistic and quite frankly creepy officer of the Communist Party, whose life mission, it seems, is to make these students’ lives miserable, a job he pulls off quite successfully. With a single man representing an entire oppressive regime, Müller is able to highlight the sheer ridiculousness of the situation – if this were one crazy man terrorising a small group, he could be stopped. But with the power of an entire nation behind him, he is able to carry out his petty and silly games without interference.

The Land of Green Plums is not immediately confronting or terrifying. Instead, Müller has created a work that, through its language and atmosphere (if a novel can have such a thing), paints a world that is grey. That’s the best way I can describe it. Grey. It’s blank, bleak, nothing. And that’s what terrifies me most when reading it – a world that is so nothing, people are driven to suicide just to escape.

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3 thoughts on “The Land of Green Plums (1993) – Herta MÜLLER

  1. Lisa Hill says:

    *chuckle* I think we might share that taste, Matt!
    Muller is on my list of authors to catch up with too, so I was interested in this review.
    But I have to disagree about the genre being done to death: it’s a bit like the Holocaust, just when you think everyone knows about it and rejects the ideas behind it, along comes another generation that shows you that this is not so. (Remember Prince Whatsit wearing the Nazi swastika to a party?)
    Whenever a state feels threatened and political parties prey on the fears of the populace to get elected, there’s a risk that basic freedoms get eroded under the guise of dealing with the fear. IMO literature that makes people aware of the consequences of that risk will always have a place.

    • matttodd says:

      Funny you should mention that, Lisa. I have this quote from the back of the book:

      “If W.G. Sebald’s The Immigrants suggested there are still new ways of writing about exile and the Holocaust, The Land of Green Plums promises similar possibilities for the literature of the Iron Curtain.”

      Granted, I haven’t really read much Iron Curtain literature, but I’d be curious to see why this novel is so different from the others. When I said the done to death thing, I meant more in the realms of speculative fiction. As a science fiction nerd, I see lots and lots of films/novels/stories dealing with life under terribler ulers. And mainstream literary authors are guilty of doing this when they want to branch out and write spec fiction – they show us a future where the extremists have won, and everyone’s out to get the little guy. So I suppose, in that respect, there is a lot of fiction dealing with dictators – much of it not good.

      And in relation to the Holocaust, I don’t have to look any further than Mawer’s The Glass Room to highlight what I perceive to be a problem with the way the Holocaust is written about in contemporary literature. All too often, it is part of an historical realist framework that does nothing with the concept, except have it there to highlight the novel’s intentions to be worthy. There are, of course, the exceptions that prove the rule – Boyle’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, for example, which I still haven’t read. Or Amis’ Time’s Arrow. Or Martel’s new novel, which I am halfway through – a book that is sure to pique anyone’s fascination with the Holocaust in a new and original way.

      And now I appear to have gone on a tangent. I’m sorry. Interesting discussion, though.

  2. Lisa Hill says:

    Tangent away, Matt, it is sooo good to talk with someone intelligent after the day I’ve had at work LOL!

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