i read this hot on the heels of The Land of Green Plums, which was written two years later, in 1994. Fox is being translated into english for the firsi read this hot on the heels of The Land of Green Plums, which was written two years later, in 1994. Fox is being translated into english for the first time, by a different translator from the one who translated Plums. this makes it all the more striking that müller's language sounds, in english, so incredibly consistent. this woman thinks in poetry and imagery and, even though the imagery is bleak, the language is oh so beautiful. if you don't believe it, read her nobel lecture. sometimes i wonder how she speaks in daily life: do people understand her?
but people must, because, even though the language and the imagery are so very strange, by half-way through you understand pretty much everything. the story emerges from the language, in the language, with sudden clarity, and you wonder if it was there all along and you missed it, or if you had to get used to the telling, or if müller just needed to set it all up so that it would be earned.
the novel follows, first a village, then a small group of friends over the last few months/years (not clear to me) of the ceausescu regime. uncharacteristically, i believe, for müller, ceausescu is clearly alluded to, and, at one point, even named.
there is a passage in Primo Levi's If This Is a Man in which levi describes in astonishing terms what it means to be considered by another not a person but an intangible, invisible thing, and how this act of dehumanization is more powerful, more destructive, than overt violence. müller is masterful at explaining the ways in which a brutal dictatorship can chip away at the joy of living through the daily grind of fear. nothing extraordinarily horrible happens in this or the other novel i've read. no one is killed, raped, or beaten. what happens, instead, is that people's simple going about their day gets soaked in fear. there is some specifically targeted intimidation, some precise mind-fuckery, but most of all what gets to people is the bleakness, the lightlessness, the perennial scrutiny, the pervasiveness of petty exercises in authority. this is the particular dehumanization herta müller portrays.
the book starts with poplars and the particular prison-bars-like shading of trees. poplars are like knives. evil men eat sunflower seeds and spit them. the sunflower seeds are black and small. there is a striped cat and its stripes are the stripes of the bars made by the trees. it's either very cold or very hot, but even when it's very cold there is no snow so the cold is dry and dusty. the factory where most of the villagers work has spools of wire and the wire rusts and the rust leaks. people steal metal from the metal factory, bit and pieces, and they get caught by one of the many gatekeepers installed in the village, and when they get caught they have to leave the metal they have stolen with the gatekeeper. the regime creates little hierarchies that make neighbors be merciless and cruel to each other.
it's ordinary life but it's also scary life and hopeless life and people escape it by crossing the danube into hungary, except they often drown and when they drown no one mourns them because they are just corpses that don't mean anything.
there are many insects in this book. they follow people around.
herta müller has the imagination of a child. she sees the world through metaphors. she is struck by moles, birthmarks, warts, tall foreheads, wide-spaced eyes, thin temples, big heads, small hands. little things we regularly miss mean so much in this book. what would happen if we saw the world they way she does, so immensely pregnant with things to see, so immensely marvelous?
this is why, in spite of the bleakness, this is a lovely book. the language makes it so intolerably beautiful. it's beautiful in spite of itself but it's also beautiful intentionally, because maybe, just maybe, this beauty, all these moles and warts and wide-spaced eyes and insects and poplars and seeds, are the things that make life endurable, the way children make life endurable by telling themselves stories in the dark of their room, at night.
many thanks to netgalley for an ARC of this book...more
it seems to me that if you want or need to write about the intensely traumatic life of people under a brutal dictatorship, writing with the language oit seems to me that if you want or need to write about the intensely traumatic life of people under a brutal dictatorship, writing with the language of children is a good way to go.
i deduce from other things i've read by herta mūller (okay, basically only her nobel lecture, which i can't recommend highly enough), that this novel is autobiographical, and i find profoundly inspirational that she helped herself through the process of writing about her trauma by using great inventiveness of imagery and language, and fantastic turns of events. in spite of being dark, this book is suffused with the special sweetness that comes from narrating events through the lens of child-play. trauma is so, so difficult to tell, and if lovely simple imagery helps us through the telling, well, dang, we should totally use it.
so look, this is not a super easy book to read, because you need to don your childlike glasses and let yourself be taken by plums and wooden objects and tin objects and sacks of canvas and pillowcases and barbers and nailclippings, and at first, since you are so thoroughly weaned from the magic of childhood, you will be confused. you will want to understand; you will expect the narrator to explain. eventually, though, the language will train you back into looking at things with the eyes and forbearance of a child, and you will understand pretty much everything.
which is -- the everything that needs to be understood -- that petty quotidian abuse and the systematic reminder that your freedom is taken away from you without rhyme or reason or any possibility for appeal cause a distress so deep that surviving it is well nigh impossible. there are, maybe, hints of true blue torture in here, but mostly what grinds down the soul of the young and older people who populate this beautiful, beautiful novel is their daily subjection to indignity, oppression, humiliation, suspicion, and fear.
i don't want to give the impression that this is all high fantasy, because it isn't. under the language of childish words there is a clear, realist story, and you can reconstruct it pretty well. but the language, well the language made the book more tolerable for me to read, and maybe (this is my starting theory) more tolerable for the writer to write, too.
because children have this tremendous tolerance for horror, and what is horrific to us -- the wolf eating red riding hood's grandmother -- is story to them, and stories make you stronger. stories allow you to experience pain without too much bite. stories give you the demons and the saviors, too.
the present-time of the narration is alternated with flashbacks of the narrator's childhood, and i found these little vignettes, inserted seamlessly in the text, very powerful. they felt to me reminders that this is a book written in some ways by a child (in some ways, because the narrator is in fact a university student), but since the stories contained in them are pretty straightforwardly bitter, they also brought home to me that it is easier for the childlike narrator to play a little when telling the story of her present trauma if she tells the pain of her childhood straight up. in other words, the childlike narrator has to establish herself as a lucid and direct narrator of her own childhood, so that the childlike quality of her narrative of her adulthood be grounded and rooted in the honesty and truthfulness of the story of her childhood pain.
i don't quite know why things were not better for our narrator when she was a child. i don't know whether she looks back at her childhood and tinges it with the horrors of the present. i don't know if her childhood is meant to represent the childhood of all children and all adults under ceausescu. It is quite possible that this was her childhood -- that it wasn't a good childhood. those were the parts that hit me the most: the unadorned pain of a little girl.
even though this, for the reasons i have explained, was not the easiest read, i couldn't put it down, and always looked forward to going back to it. it's beautiful writing, and an important story, and in my opinion quite a masterpiece.
this story is so... preposterous, really, that one doesn't quite know what to do with it. but jo nesbo writes fine prose and fine story, and keeps youthis story is so... preposterous, really, that one doesn't quite know what to do with it. but jo nesbo writes fine prose and fine story, and keeps you engaged, and at the end of the day the son (protagonist) kept me good solid company for a week, so, okay: five stars for keeping me company; one star for being a book that doesn't make any sense at all and whose denouement you can see half way through. average: 3 stars.
entertaining, well written, well paced psychological thriller. what i like most about this series, beside harry hole (pr. hoo-lah), is that there areentertaining, well written, well paced psychological thriller. what i like most about this series, beside harry hole (pr. hoo-lah), is that there are no guns. with few exceptions the cops carry no guns, and when they do they don't use them. they seem to prefer talking their criminals down and tricking them in other ways. i just read in the news that american cops are trained to go for the head or the torso. like, you know, if you are mouthing off, or videotaping them, or twitching a little. these norwegian cops seem to be trained to go for the mind, and if they really need to incapacitate someone i suppose they'll try with a graze wound on the arm. ask me how much i love this.
also: no slew of dead/raped/uber-sexualized and violated young women. ask me how much i like this. ...more
this is really good. i docked stars because, and also because (view spoiler)[when the solution to a mystery involves the killer's having multiple persthis is really good. i docked stars because, and also because (view spoiler)[when the solution to a mystery involves the killer's having multiple personalities it feels to me like a cop-out (hide spoiler)]. other than that, great read, great writing, great pacing, and fuck war. ...more
i read this a long time ago. though i remember it only dimly, i know that it changed my life, the way some books do. like The Catcher in the Rye. likei read this a long time ago. though i remember it only dimly, i know that it changed my life, the way some books do. like The Catcher in the Rye. like Almanac of the Dead. like If This Is a Man. like that book by czeslaw milosz in which he riffs on whitman, whose title i cannot remember/find to save my life, and which got dropped to the bottom of the atlantic ocean when i tried to ship my books across continents in a box that was way too slight to hold so much weight. there are good books somewhere between northern france and the statue of liberty for the fish to enjoy. beats plastic, petrol, and mercury, don't you think? if you know what milosz i'm talking about, drop me a note.
with life-changing books, sometimes it's a freak thing, sometimes there's no freakness involved at all.
i don't know who to recommend it to. maybe no one. i'm in a space now in which only fast pace and cool COOL language works for me. i read mysteries, even though i am an extremely poor consumer of mysteries. i've discovered there's some really great stuff in genre fiction. i thank mike for this, and linda.
this "review" has almost nothing to do with the book it is supposed to review, but maybe my friends will read it anyway and understand why i needed to write it....more