William1's Reviews > The Appointment

The Appointment by Herta Müller
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May 25, 12

bookshelves: translation, romania, 20-ce, fiction
Read from May 23 to 24, 2012

The Appointment is about life in Nicolae Ceauşescu’s communist Romania. What a simultaneously sinister and banal place. The mind won’t absorb it. The novel is in every sense a dystopia. Only in this case it happens not to be an SF fantasy but based on 20th century events. Almost without effort Herta Müller shows us the utter self-defeating nature of police states, their inefficiency, rotten core, bankrupt ideology, and doomed future.

Its narrative line is elliptical. It has been written in a rich though understated style with a subtle patterning of motifs throughout. It is “story” distilled to its essentials. I suppose it might be called muscular were its anatomy not so delicately wrought. It is not chic lit. It is highly readable literary fiction, not at all cryptic, and in the end emotionally shattering. The Appointment has a fragmented narrative line. It consists of an interbraiding, if you will, of nine or ten related stories. It is not a collection of linked stories. Not at all. It is a novel.

First there is the core story of our unnamed female narrator as she takes one particular streetcar journey to an interrogation with Major Albu, her tormentor in the secret police. Both city and narrator are unnamed, as are the state’s leader and its form of government. One senses Müller wants nothing to do with politics. Around this core of the streetcar trip other stories are intertwined. These include the life and death of the beautiful Lilli and her elderly lover; the story of our narrator's involvement with a co-worker, Nelu, whom she fucks out of sheer boredom during a grim business trip and will thereafter have nothing to do with; and the story of how she meets Paul, her second husband.

Early on she does something very silly, something that would be laughable in any other context, but which the authorities consider treasonous. She writes her name and address on slips of paper along with an offer of marriage and inserts these "letters in a bottle" into the pockets of garments she knows will be shipped to men’s stores in Italy. Needless to say, the slips are found before shipping and she is denounced by the rejected Nelu.

Henceforth, she must endure periodic interrogations by the creepy Major Albu at state security, who intentionally slobbers all over her hand when “kissing” it. This is the perfect metaphor for Power’s attitude to long tradition, especially civility to women. Albu is scary but over the course of the novel we come to see how impotent he is. Moreover, we come to know what the state fears: its dissolution by unknown means. A fate it was to undergo when the democratic movement swept Eastern Europe in 1989. (One of the highlights of that period, in my view, is the videotaped assassination of the old tyrant Ceauşescu and his termagant wife. (See YouTube for video.)

The state’s involvement in the minutia of its citizens’s lives never fails to astound the reader. But why? It seems to me it would be like sending your innocuous kid sister in for questioning. Why do it? Of what possible intelligence value can there be in interrogating a young woman who works in a button factory? It is done solely in the name of ideological conformity. The people of this unnamed state have nothing to be proud of. They are essentially prisoners in their own country. Lilli is shot while trying to cross the border. Their news is hortatory propaganda. There is no cultural life to speak of, no artistic expression. Romania under Ceauşescu makes Orwell’s 1984 look like a grand day spent at Six Flags.

Very striking is the consistent preference throughout of young women for old men. Young men are — no, not those on whom all hopes and dreams for the future are placed — but a thoroughly disenfranchised lot, without opportunity, almost invisible. Paul is the group’s lone representative for the duration of the book, except for one scene set in an Officers Club. Here the emasculated young men sit at tables ogling Lilli and her old man and tossing matchheads at them. Right or wrong, I saw the matchheads as symbols of forestalled ignition, quashed passion.

The narrator’s Inexplicable first marriage is to the son of the Perfumed Commissar, once head of state expropriation, who not only took every scrap of property her grandparents owned, but then sent them to a hellish “camp,” a gulag essentially, where the grandmother promptly died, reduced to geophagy.

This is a very powerful, very dark novel. I recommended it highly. However, if you are new to Herta Müller's work I would advise you to start with the even more remarkable In the Land of Green Plums.
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Comments (showing 1-12 of 12) (12 new)

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William1 Moonbutterfly wrote: "Wow, this sounds good. I like dark and meaningful books.

Very nice review."


Thanks dear.


message 2: by B0nnie (new) - added it

B0nnie If this were made into a movie, the creepy Major Albu could be played by Jim Carrey, yeah he is totally easy to picture slobbering on someone's hand. But then I wouldn't go see it. For that reason.


William1 An interesting piece of casting. I was thinking a young Martin Landau as he appeared in NXNW. Can't think of anyone actually living who'd fill the bill.


message 4: by s.penkevich (new)

s.penkevich Wow, wonderful review. I'm sold, sounds extremely powerful. I must admit, I'd never even heard of Muller until they awarded her the nobel.

Romania under Ceauşescu makes Orwell’s 1984 look like a grand day spent at Six Flags. That has to be GR quote of the week.


message 5: by Traveller (last edited May 26, 2012 09:30AM) (new) - added it

Traveller Sounds interesting. Thanks for the review, it actually sounds pretty good!


William1 Traveller wrote: "Sounds interesting. Thanks for the review, it actually sounds pretty good!"

It is. Enjoy it.


message 7: by Mikki (new)

Mikki Thanks, William, The interwoven stories is a format I'm drawn to. Have you also read The Passport?


message 8: by William1 (last edited May 26, 2012 11:50AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

William1 Mikki wrote: "Thanks, William, The interwoven stories is a format I'm drawn to. Have you also read The Passport?"

You're welcome.

Passport's next. Did you like it? : )


message 9: by Mikki (last edited May 26, 2012 11:59AM) (new)

Mikki I haven't read it yet though have flipped through the first few pages a few times. The book is deceiving -- small, but in no way light.


William1 Mikki wrote: "I haven't read it yet though have flipped through the first few pages a few times. The book is deceiving -- small, but in no way light."

She's a fabulous writer who knows how to be concise.


William1 s.penkevich wrote: "Wow, wonderful review. I'm sold, sounds extremely powerful. I must admit, I'd never even heard of Muller until they awarded her the nobel.

Romania under Ceauşescu makes Orwell’s 1984 look like a g..."


Thanks. I only wish her works wew more numerous.


Lynne King An excellent review as ever William.

I'm new to this author's work but this book appealed to me for some obscure reason and I will probably start it tomorrow.


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