Thursday 9 June 2011

100% Dynamite - the Nobel Project 2

'The Passport' - Herta Muller

So, this is already turning out to be a fascinating project (for me, at least). From the lengthy work of Llosa, I turn to this slender 92 page novella of prose poetry. How to describe it?

'Chewy' is the first word that springs to mind, chewy in a good sticky-toffee way though it's a grim and hideous story. Friends of mine know I've been wrestling for many years now with my own prose-poem novella, so finding this was both a joy and a series of repeated axe-blows of despair. A joy because I see that I'm not crazy, it can be done, despair because Muller has chosen a totally different poetic style and makes it work supremely, whereas I'm wading through overwrought sentences channelling the spirit of James Joyce on a rare good day, and Stanley Unwin on all too frequent bad one.

Muller's writing style seems at first glance mundane; Short factual sentences, often stripped bare of metaphor and adjectives, but then out of nowhere comes an astonishing piece of imagery or a convoluted cobweb of repeated phrases. The closest I can come to a comparative is that it's like reading a nightmare narrated by the Brothers Grimm. There's a fairytale quality to Muller's construction of repetition, her seemingly casual insertion of a horrific visual image, and I guess that makes perfect sense because 'The Passport' is an allegory. Her story is very simple, but the reality of her story is so arcane, sinister and corrupted by evil, that Muller clearly feels the only way she can truly get across the enormity of the narrative is to retreat into archetypes of fable; the journey through the dark wood, haunted animals, demonic trees and protective talismans.

The plot, stripped down to its basics is simply this - In Ceacescu's Romania, a rural miller seeks a passport for himself, his wife and daughter so they can travel to Germany and escape the barbarism of communism. A passport isn't easy, and he has to bribe his way to the document in a series of increasingly humiliating and costly payments. A lesser writer would have written the straight skinny; the bribery, the corruption, the sexual exploitation, and while it may have made a stark and grim piece of documentary fiction, it would be far less of a read.

Muller knows that all such regimes are tainted by the culture of the nations they seek to oppress; many so-called communist states were riddled by the feudalistic cultural tropes of the nations' ancient history, so it makes perfect sense for Muller to tell her story in that context. By choosing the language of folklore, mythology and the ancient beliefs and prejudices of medieval serfdom, she makes it plain that her present day world of bureaucracy, cruelty and grotesque corruption is just as uncivilised and riddled with evil.

This truly is an astonishing book, unlike anything else you've probably read, Despite the brevity, it took me almost as long to finish as the previous epic, partly because it's sometimes like joyously and heroically hacking through a forest of thorns to reach the narrative within, but also because at times the imagery and language shine so immaculately that you find yourself stopping to read and re-read sentences, paragraphs and even entire chapters. The good news is that each chapter is short, sometimes no longer than a couple of paragraphs, and while there is a consistent through line, each chapter is presented as a separate and distinct short story. I wish I knew a lot more about Romanian folklore and history so I could appreciate this more fully, but at the same time, it really doesn't matter; Muller's fairytale archetypes are universal, but always approached with a fresh and startling eye and ear, and ultimately they are simply the trappings of the far darker truth of the core of the narrative.

And it's just so damn chewy. Delicious, like a toffee apple but packed full of barbed wire, owl claws and dying wasps.

NEXT: 'Desert' by Mauritian J.M.G. Le Clezio, a dual narrative set in pre world war 1 and post world war 2 Morrocco apparently, so once again, another history lesson.


  1. "Delicious, like a toffee apple but packed full of barbed wire, owl claws and dying wasps."

    That is the finest simile I have read for years... possibly ever! A hint of Mervyn Peake, a taste of JP Martin, but your own all the way. And it really makes me want to read the book.

    (Incidentally, this needing a profile or an account to comment is a bit of a nightmare. Is there any way to switch it off? I had to resurrect an old Google email account, which took time to work out, and the only reason I did was because your simile was fizzing away at me unstoppably!)

  2. Why thank you kind sir; Ms Muller inspires one to such turns of phrase.

    And seriously Philip, you're asking ME about computers?