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The International Writers Magazine: Review

The Passport – Herta Muller
Serpents Tail (Profile Books Ltd)
ISBN: 978-1852421397

Paul Valentine


There is a stark simplicity to Mullers prose. When this is used to convey the sultry natural scenes and ignoble baseness of trying to live in Ceausescu's Romania the results are poetically explosive.

Windisch and his wife and daughter Amalie live in a mill with a smallholding. Trapped in Romania after the war, Windisch wants to leave and migrate to West Germany. The Romanians do not like the Germans and welcome their departure, but first Windisch needs passports, and he also knows that church and state require a price for this.

The symbolic centre of this work is ‘The tear’;

       ‘On the white paper was a tear. It had a hole at its tip. Inside, in its stomach, the tear had a groove. Under the tear lay a note. Rudi had written: The tear is empty. Fill it with water. Preferably with rain water. Amalie couldn’t fill the tear. It was summer and the village was Parched.’

       The book is full of symbolism, each vignette like a Bruegel painting. Everything here is on the surface; the people; the trees; the wildlife; the shadows, but what you don’t see is the drudgery, the suspicion and the hypocrisy. It is a life of stark despair and despondency, punctuated only by the scenery and props of nature, the hot summer sun and freezing cold winters.

       Muller has not convinced all the reviewing fraternity, largely over her clipped style. But for me, the style is the key to this surrealist, existentialist prose poem: it balances the starkness in its most brutal reality, in the same way that Bruegal uses colours in his depictions of rural life, to bring out contrasts and to show incongruity.

        But make no mistake, however the picture is arranged, these vignettes are from the most realistic of real life. And the trick for me is the distance Muller gets between herself as author and her work. If you want passion and involvement, don’t look here, this is as near to the ‘alien’s eye view’ that it gets.

© Paul Valentine Feb 2010
Paul is studying for his MA in Creative Writing at a South Coast University in the UK
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