The Land of Green Plums by Herta Muller

Herta Müller, Nobel laureate in literature 200...

Herta Müller, Nobel laureate in literature 2009, at the Leipziger Buchmesse 2007 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a previous blog, I mentioned that Wallace Stegner‘s Angle of Repose depicted a specific era of U.S. history not often written about by serious novelists.  Herta Muller‘s semi-autobiographical novel sheds a personal light on an era of European history dominated by the influence of the Soviet Union and the dictators who benefited from such influence.  As one reads The Land of Green Plums, it becomes abundantly clear that there are aspects to life under a repressive regime – namely, fear and paranoia – that can be read about in news accounts and discussed, but cannot fully be understood except by those who have lived under such a regime.Green Plums is set in Muller’s homeland, Romania, and although she does not identify the country’s dictator by name, it is Ceausescu and his police-state regime that she describes.  In her Nobel lecture (included in my Picador edition), she talked about the threats, intimidation and persecution to which she was subjected as a translator in a factory.  In the novel, this experience and others form the basis for the lives of the characters.  One method used by the secret police (the “securitate”) of entrapping Romanians into appearing as “collaborators” with internal spies employed by the secret police was to write fictitious letters to them from relatives.  (A portion of the wikipedia entry for Green Plums does not acknowledge that this was happening to the narrator in the novel, but if one considers the numerous examples of the securitate’s reading everyone’s mail and how the characters used code words in their letters, and hair in the envelopes, then it is obvious.)  Another method of oppression consisted of killing its political opponents, then declaring the death a suicide after a perfunctory investigation.  (Again, part of the wikipedia entry takes the description of Georg’s death as a suicide at face value, but that is probably an incorrect interpretation given the nature of the securitate.) 

The characters of Green Plums reacted to the continuous oppression by engaging in a variety of schemes to outwit the authorities, including the hiding of books and silencing of any conversation that could even remotely be considered the least bit subversive if overheard by someone whose trust was not assured.  And how would a person working in a factory demonstrate their trustworthiness?

“The workers steal scraps of wood and make them into parquet floors at home….Anyone who doesn’t steal isn’t taken seriously…. even if their apartments have wall-to-wall parquet, they can’t stop stealing and laying more.  The parquet eventually covers the walls, right up to the ceiling.” p.88

There were other police states in Europe during this era, including Hungary.  In March of 2011, the Associated Press reported that the Hungarian government proposed giving its citizens the right to destroy any files or surveillance reports about them created by the secret police during the time Hungary was controlled by communist and fascist governments.  (See “Historians fear loss of communist files” by Pablo Gorondi, Oregonian, March 6, 2011).  

The policy that the Hungarian government proposes empowers the victims of oppression, but also creates a situation where valuable documentation establishing the existence of the oppression would be lost.  It is my hope that there are Hungarians who are willing to allow their files to exist as historical documents and thereby reduce the likelihood of such regimes coming into existence in the future.  If the people of Romania and Hungary could have known in advance how bad their lives would become under communism, would they have been able to alter their futures?  Muller’s novel does a superb job of informing the world of how people fare under communism and fascism, regardless of the volume of historical documents that can be amassed.  It is a novel that speaks the truth.



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