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The Passport – Book Review

Passport“Put the flour in the yard. The gate is open.” His voice was asleep. That night, there was a thunderstorm. A flash of lightening struck the grass in front of the window. The mayor switched off his torch. His voice woke up and spoke more loudly. “Another five deliveries, Windisch,” said the mayor, “then the money at New Year. And at Easter you’ll have your passport.” There was a roll of thunder and the mayor looked up to the window. “Put the flour underneath the roof,” he said, “it’s going to rain.”

“Twelve deliveries since then, and ten thousand lei, and Easter is long past,” thinks Windisch. It’s a long time since he knocked on the window. He opens the gate. Windisch presses the sack to his stomach and puts it in the yard. Even when it’s not raining, Windisch puts the sack underneath the roof. – from The Passport, page 16 –

Windisch, the village miller, is living with his wife and daughter in a German town in Romania. It is after the war, and Ceausescu is dictator. People are leaving Romania to live in the West where there seems to be hope for a future. But first, they must obtain a passport. Windisch watches as his neighbors pack up and leave, and still he waits for his passport. Despite deliveries of flour and money to town officials, the passport is withheld from him. And then he learns that there is still one thing he can “sell” which will buy a passport – his daughter’s virginity.

The Passport is a dark, symbolic novella by 2009 Nobel Prize winner Herta Muller. Do not let its lean size fool you – it is neither an easy read, nor a quick one. Muller writes in what can only be called poetic prose. The novella is dense with symbolism. Stark and at times shocking, the language of the book is almost a puzzle to be teased out and contemplated.

To fully understand Muller’s work, the reader must have some background information about Romania under Ceausescu’s rule, and some understanding of the history of the region including that with Russia. The Communists seized power in Romania in 1947. Gradually Soviet forces were coaxed into retreating from Romania and by 1965, Ceausescu had become Secretary General of the Romanian Communist Party. At this time he declared Romania the Socialist Republic of Romania. Although initially Ceausescu had an open policy with Western Europe and the United States,  his rule became more erratic and characterized by a deterioration of the relationship with foreign leaders from 1979 to 1989 when he was finally overthrown by a military coupe and executed.

The Passport is a look at daily existence under the oppressive rule of Ceausescu. Muller’s short, stark sentences evoke a bleakness and hopelessness. She uses metaphor and surreal imagery to paint a picture of of a desperate people. Repeated images include the dark shape of an owl flying over the village, a harbinger of death. Playing on the superstition of the villagers, Muller tracks the owl’s progress through the night as he looks for a roof to light upon…the roof he picks will bring death to someone inside that home.

A bird is flying over the pond. Slow and straight as if drawn along a string. Close to the water. As if it were ground. Windisch follows it with his eyes. “Like a cat,” he says. “An owl,” says the night watchman. He puts his hand to his mouth. “The light at Widow Kroner’s has been burning for three nights.” Windisch pushes his bicycle. “She can’t die,” he says, “the owl hasn’t settled on any roof yet.” – from The Passport, page 11 –

Muller also includes references to the debasement of women who are used for sex or abused by men. Women are portrayed as deceitful, manipulative, and only useful for sex. One of the more moving chapters for me was Muller’s depiction of Windisch’s wife in a Russian prison where she was forced to prostitute herself to survive. Later this becomes even more meaningful when Windisch and his wife use their daughter to get a passport. People are dying every day in the Russian  prison, and Windisch’s wife (who spends five years there)  is determined not to be one of them. The winters are the hardest when the cold is unbearable and hunger pricks like a hedgehog in her belly.

On top of the mountains there was yet another mountain range of clouds and drifting snow. Frost burned on the truck. Not everyone got off at the mine. Every morning some men and women remained sitting on the benches. They sat with open eyes. They let everyone go past. They were frozen. They were sitting on the other side. – from The Passport, page 74 –

Another repeated theme is that of black vs. white – Muller paints a landscape of black images or starkly white images – there is no gray in this Romanian village. Things are simply black or white. In this village time clicks by slowly, things seem to stand still, and yet time is passing.

Every day when Windisch is jolted by the pot hole, he thinks, “The end is here.” Since Windisch made the decision to emigrate, he sees the end everywhere in the village. And time standing still for those who want to stay. – from The Passport, page 7 –

The Passport is not a light read – it is dark, haunting, and sad. It took me a while to get used to Muller’s language which seemed more suited for poetry than a novella…and yet by midway through the book I found myself strangely compelled to keep reading. Muller’s writing has a symmetry and a rhythm which suits the theme of her book – a story about the desperation of a people under a stifling  and cruel dictatorship.

I believe I missed a lot in this little book. I admit I had to look up the history of Romania. I also admit that I have always struggled to tease out the meaning in poems…and so I am sure there is much here I just did not get. This would be a fantastic book to read with a group and discuss. It is also a book which could stand a re-read. I struggled to rate The Passport – how could I assign a rating to a book which I felt I barely understood? And yet, ultimately I had to acknowledge that Muller is a brilliant writer who has written a book which is important. Although her style is not an easy style to understand, most readers who stick with the story will find The Passport a compelling read.

Highly recommended for readers who love literary fiction and books which challenge them intellectually.

5stars

6 Comments

  1. November 26, 2009    

    Wow! What a story – I can’t imagine what it would be like to live where I would even entertain a thought like that. If this book challenged you, I know it would challenge me for sure!

  2. November 27, 2009    

    I’m reading an anthology of short stories, essays, photography, and poetry from Russia and Eastern Europe called The Wall in My Head. It’s about the fall of communism and the post-communist era. I just read several poems by a Romanian who was ostensibly quite fond of Ceausescu, but whose poems are actually really dark and ambivalent. The introductory blurb claimed that this poet actually represents a lot of the collective Romanian mindset at the time.

    The very first piece in The Wall in My Head is an essay about how Kaftaesque the Communist Era really was – that the state and bureaucracy existed as mechanisms unto themselves. They were like independent forces that just carried people along with them.

    Anyway, I found this review very timely. From what you described, the mood and setting sound very similar to what I’ve been reading.

  3. December 1, 2009    

    GREAT review! Wow, this sounds intense. It reminds me, in terms of short length packing a huge philosophical punch, of Hilary Mantel’s Fludd, or Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day. Though this seems harsher. I have been wanting to learn more about Muller since she won the Nobel Prize- thanks for giving me a glimpse!

  4. December 6, 2009    

    Kathy: This is a very powerful, very challenging book. I hope more readers will read and review it so I can see their take on it.

    El Fay: The book you’re reading sounds very intense and interesting. I like these kinds of books…although I need to intersperse them in my reading as they are often ‘dark’ and dreary.

    Aarti: Thanks! I haven’t read either of the books you mentioned – must check them out. I’ll be interested to see your thoughts on the book if you read it…it is harsh, but so beautifully written…just like poetry.

  5. December 8, 2009    

    I’m really glad you gave some background on the book – I’m bookmarking your review and am going to come back and read the history part before I read the book.

  6. December 9, 2009    

    Swapna: I will be really interested to read your thoughts on this one.

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