Her Nobel prize-winning book’s title can be translated as “Even then the fox was the hunter” and it tells the story of a group of people living the last months (or years?) of communism in a city that - we can only guess – is Timisoara, Romania.
But I guess “tells the story” is an exaggeration. Herta Muller doesn’t tell a story. She lays on the page a series of visual metaphors that end up, like a giant ideatic puzzle, crystallizing into a story with actual characters, plots, twists and turns building up to a breathless escape from the city by two of what turn out to be principal characters. You have to read between the lines of what feels like a stream-of-consciousness-babble with essential parts of the plot being buried within matter-of-fact details describing the slight flutter of a leaf or the look of the wrinkles on a trolley bus.
I really wanted to like this book. I’m happy and hopeful every time Romania is in the news for something other than orphans, Dracula or yet another corruption scandal. So even though Herta is not really Romanian and she wrote the book in German, the story is that of life in communist Romania – I would say it qualifies as a non-negative Romanian story.
Herta Muller was criticized for, allegedly, portraying Romanians as opressors of the German minority in Romania. I didn’t see any of that in this book. There were some references to Hungarians (there is one Hungarian who gets interrogated by the secret police) but I was mostly distracted by the fact that all Hungarian names and words were misspelled. Maybe some other books? I happen to think that, at least in Transylvania, everyone was equally opressed by the communists. Also, everyone probably felt more opressed than the other person. But that’s not something you brag about.
But once you get past the shattered glass-like writing and you manage to find the words that actually make up the story, the feel of that world comes crashing into you. And you realize that the small details in fact tell a parallel story of the fear and lack of hope and smells and hidden thoughts that are larger than the small life we used to live in.
I’m wondering if someone who didn’t grow up there has the same reaction since a lot of these visual details are so intimately linked to a world that no longer exists and when it did exist, it was behind an impenetrable iron curtain.
And I ended up really liking the book. It’s like stuffed cabbage: an acquired taste.