Hannah Rachel Potter's Reviews > The Passport

The Passport by Herta Müller
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May 30, 2010

did not like it
bookshelves: adult, fiction
Read in April, 2010

Overall Verdict: A horrible, bleak and despair-filled book – best avoided. (The generous one star is for the character of Amalie).

Well then. Where do I start with this one? Let me see. Oh yes. I hated it.

Sorry? What do you mean I can’t just say I hate it and leave it at that? Who says a book review has to be in depth? Oh, ok, fine!

*Sigh*

So, you want to know what was so bad about it. Again, I’m not sure where to begin, but I shall endeavour to do my best. I would like to point out though, that I despised the book so much that even though I finished reading it about three weeks ago, I am only just writing the review. I would also like to mention that I resolved to always find at least one good thing to say about anything I review. With The Passport – winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, 2009 no less – I am struggling. Really. In fact I think I may just have to fore-go that promise to myself altogether, which saddens me greatly – and which I blame completely on Müller’s book!

I should say here, that I was really looking forward to reading The Passport. I had always planned to read it after finishing Twilight, because it was a really short book – a novella really – and therefore I figured it would complete my easing back into reading nicely. The subject matter also seemed fascinating – a small German village in Romania struggling under the oppressive Ceausescu regime, and the effect on the people living there. The decision between eking out an existence in this place, or contemplating a move to the West. Not exactly fluffy subject matter, I grant you, but interesting nonetheless. Or so I thought.

Unfortunately, it became evident from the first few pages that this was not going to be an easy read. Or an enjoyable one. Or indeed worth spending another minute on. However, I have always regretted not finishing books when I was younger just because I couldn’t ‘get into’ them so I resolved that when I started reading again, I would persevere. At first with The Passport, I thought it was just me. That my long break from serious reading had somehow left me unable to connect with the text. That I had somehow become intellectually incapable of understanding a difficult book. After a little while though, I realised it wasn’t that I had suddenly become a literary dunce. No, the problem was the book itself. In that it was just really crap.

It isn’t just the profanity that irritated me – although it certainly played its part. Equally, sex in novels generally doesn’t bother me. I’m not a prude. I don’t get upset about bad language or sex if there is a context, if it fits with the character using those words or doing those deeds – though to be truthful it doesn’t particularly thrill me. However, the swearing in The Passport was mainly perpetrated by the narrator’s voice – by Müller herself. This, I believe, was not necessary. And the descriptions of the sexual contact were nothing short of vile. There is no cushioning, just graphic imagery and more of the crude language. There was nothing about it that could even pretend to be enhancing the story. It just seemed to be thrown in to shock the reader, or perhaps to appear ‘modern’ and ‘edgy’. It obviously went down well with the Nobel judging panel. Maybe they like that sort of thing.

Add to this that none of the characters – with the possible exception of Amalie, one I would have liked to know better, but sadly was not allowed to by the author - were remotely likeable. At all. The men think it’s ok to beat, rape and oppress their women. The women, for their part, are all slappers. I know things were bad in Eastern Europe after the war, but is Müller seriously trying to tell us that this is what everyone was like? That there was nobody even slightly redeemable? That a father would feel no guilt, no shame, for pimping out his daughter to the town officials in order to get a passport?

And the writing style! In its relatively short (thank goodness!) length, the book skips backwards and forwards in time with no warning. Often I had to really concentrate, and re-read great chunks, to work out where I was and what was going on. As soon as you find your feet, you are whisked off somewhere else again. Despite this, the story never seems to actually go anywhere, until the final few pages when it races to a quick and rather unsatisfactory conclusion. The lack of dialogue also means that Müller’s voice is the one we hear loudest – not a good thing at all.

I am prepared to forgive a tiny part of the book’s failings with the knowledge that some of the prose may have been lost, or disrupted, during translation. No matter how good the translator, there are always going to be some words and emotions that just don’t make the transition from one language to another. However, translator Martin Chalmers would have had to be doing his job with his eyes closed for this to be the only reason for the way the book turned out! I think we can safely say he’s off the hook.

Maybe I’m just not intelligent enough to appreciate the book’s deeper philosophical meaning. Maybe there is a vital subtext that I’m just not seeing. Maybe I just totally missed the point. But you know what? I don’t care. Really. I am not bothered enough by this literary equivalent of watching paint dry to take the time to find out – particularly if finding out means re-reading this disaster of a novella. All I can say is, the Nobel Prize people must be of a far superior intellectual caliber than I, to have seen whatever potential The Passport contains within its 92 pages. Either that, or 2009 was a really bad year for fiction.

Sadly, this book has made me incredibly wary of reading anything else that has won a literary prize! Surely, the point of awarding writing is that it’s, well, good. Isn’t it? That it should be readable by pretty much anyone who likes to read. Something that your average bookworm can pick up and enjoy. Because really, if a panel of judges have no connection to the real world and the books people love to read, then what’s the point? And as a writer, why would you want to write for these people and not the general public. Sure, awards are great, but if nobody likes or enjoys your book, then surely that’s a fail.

Anyway, I would not hesitate to recommend that you avoid this book if you possibly can. Unless, of course, you’re into jarring prose, thoroughly unlikeable characters and a plot that goes nowhere. If that’s your thing – go for it!

For more of my reviews - not just books - please visit my blog
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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Casey (Myshkin) Buell You're comment "That a father would feel no guilt, no shame, for pimping out his daughter to the town officials in order to get a passport?" leads me to believe that you missed much in this novel. Mainly because the entire plot of this novel revolves around a father trying to do everything he can to get a passport WITHOUT letting his daughter sleep with officials. And in fact when Amalie does sleep with them it is her choice and her father is firmly against it. Also I'd like to point out (yet again) that this novel did not win a Nobel Prize, because novels don't win Nobel Prizes, author do, based on their entire body of work.


message 2: by Fp (new) - rated it 1 star

Fp Thank you for this review! I have to read this book for a class, and I already hate it. I was starting to feel a little crazy, hearing mostly praise, without anyone acknowledging how inhuman, even evil, most of the characters are - as if that doesn't matter. Well, I guess it doesn't, to some people, but it's not because they're "elite," as they might like to think. Thank you for saying what needed to be said, and for showing a human reaction to this train wreck of a book. I was excited to read it, too, because I thought the premise was really interesting. But, alas, my reaction was basically the same as yours.


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