Winner of the 1998 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award
The Land of Green Plums is the story of a group of young people in Nicolae Ceauşescu's Romania. Having left their impoverished villages for university in search of education and camaraderie, yet largely unprepared for urban life by their provincial childhoods, the youths quickly find their hopes dashed: the city, no less than the countryside, bears the mark of the dictator's corrosive touch. Eventually, the friends betray each other and themselves; as they do, we see the way the totalitarian state comes to inhabit every human realm and how everyone, even the strongest, must either bend to the oppressors or resist them and thereby perish.
"A kind of fairy tale on the mingled evils of gluttony,
stupidity and brutality."
"A powerful, affecting story—one that makes clear the real
value of small triumphs and fleeting moments of happiness."
"Finally, a book that describes in precisely hewn detail what
it was like to live in Romania under communism. By paying careful attention to
the slightest nuances of life in Romania, the book also gives an accurate
description of what it was like to be alive anywhere in Eastern Europe during
the years of communism.... Miss Müller has
triumphed in her honesty, and The Land of Green Plums is her testimony."
The Judges of the 1998 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award have chosen as the winning novel Herta Müller’s The Land of Green Plums.
Ms. Müller is a Romanian-born writer—a member of that country’s German speaking minority—now living in Berlin. She will share the award with Michael Hoffman, the translator of The Land of Green Plums for its original German. The book was published in the United States by Henry Holt.
The novel brilliantly evokes a world of cruelty and oppression. Set in Communist Romania under the Ceausescu dictatorship, The Land of Green Plums portrays the lives of a group of dissident students and teachers whose integrity is continuously assailed and sometimes betrayed. Herta Müller’s stark and vivid prose explores a terror-stricken society of mendacity and political slander. The “green plums” of the title stand in part for truth and its brutal suppression in a world of interrogators and informers, where speaking out can become a matter of life and death.
The author’s style, achieves a Spartan eloquence, and the novel’s individual characters are powerfully drawn.
This elegantly understated book is at once bleak and beautiful, humorous and heartbreaking. The judges congratulate Herta Müller for her compelling literary achievement in The Land of Green Plums.
Strangers in a Strange Land
New York Times
HERTA MULLER'S third novel begins in a women's university dormitory in Nicolae Ceausescu's Romania, where Lola, a poor girl from the provinces, has come to study Russian. In a Communist country short on consumer goods, Lola and her roommates dream of ''whisper-thin'' nylon stockings while making do with what they have: ''Under the pillows in the beds were six pots of mascara. Six girls spat into the pots and stirred the soot with toothpicks until the black paste grew sticky. Then they opened their eyes wide. The toothpicks scraped against their eyelids, their lashes grew black and thick. But an hour later gray gaps began to crack open in the eyelashes. The saliva dried up and the soot crumbled onto their cheeks.''
Lola, unprepared for city life by her village childhood, has brutal sexual encounters, hangs herself with a belt and is posthumously expelled from the Communist Party. The narrator of the novel is one of her roommates, soon herself an object of political suspicion, so that when she finally leaves the university, packing her pot of mascara, she finds an unpleasant surprise in her bed: ''When I picked up the blanket to pull off the cover, I found a pig's ear in the middle of the sheet. That was the girls' way of saying farewell. I shook the sheet but the ear didn't move, it was sewn on in the middle like a button.''
''The Land of Green Plums'' is a novel of graphically observed detail in which the author seeks to create a sort of poetry out of the spiritual and material ugliness of life in Communist Romania. The book was not, however, written in Romanian. Herta Muller is a German writer who lived in Romania as part of that country's German minority; in 1987, she left Romania for Germany, where her novels have been published and acclaimed.
In the 18th century, the Hapsburg rulers in Vienna encouraged German settlers to pioneer the Hungarian lands that had recently been regained from the Ottoman Empire. Some of these lands, with their descendant German communities, passed to Romania after World War I, and the German minority there, receiving special protection during Romania's alliance with Hitler, maintained its distinctive national character into the era of Communist rule. Ceausescu, seeking to mobilize Romanian nationalism around his dictatorship, perpetrated the general harassment of the German minority, which Ms. Muller experienced as a young woman in the 70's and 80's, and which she has worked into fiction in this novel about relentless persecution in a police state.
''My mother tongue is German,'' Ms. Muller said in a 1989 interview with Amnesty International. Like Kafka writing German in Prague, Ms. Muller in Romania found in her mother tongue the painfully direct expression of profound alienation. Michael Hofmann has produced a powerful English translation, though since an important purpose of the novel is to represent cultural survival through the German language, any translation necessarily obscures some of the work's significance. Furthermore, the issue of Germanness in the novel is very much attuned to the national sensitivities of German readers today. The narrator and her friends, persecuted as dissidents in Romania, must also confront their own family histories of sentimental loyalty to Hitler. ''My father was a member of the SS; I know what I'm talking about,'' Ms. Muller commented in the 1989 interview. In the novel, the narrator feels inevitably awkward in relation to Romania's Jewish survivors: ''It was Herr Feyerabend. He was shuffling his feet and pulled a white handkerchief out of his pocket. I withdrew my head, as if the white handkerchief could feel that someone like myself was staring at a Jew.'' While the narrator may look away from the handkerchief, Ms. Muller unflinchingly confronts the complexity of the 20th century in Eastern Europe, with its terrible permutations of persecution from generation to generation.
The narrator watches the Romanian police guards in the streets of the city as they greedily pocket green plums. She herself had been warned as a child, by her father, that it was dangerous to eat green plums, but the guards do not hesitate: ''They knew where the plum trees were in every precinct they policed. . . . The plumsuckers were peasants. The green plums made them stupid. They ate themselves away from their duty. They reverted to childhood, stealing plums from village trees.''
Ms. Muller's vision of a police state manned by plum thieves reads like a kind of fairy tale on the mingled evils of gluttony, stupidity and brutality. The narrator watches the guards as they grab at young women in the streets. It might have been one of these men who followed Lola and mauled her, with ''the greedy desire of a starved dog.'' As the narrator ponders Lola's pathetic fate, the novel encompasses not only the political persecution of dissidents and the harassment of a national minority but also the particular kinds of oppression and vulnerability that women experience under a regime of policemen. Most of the literary accounts of Communist Eastern Europe have come from male writers, and it is especially interesting to have from Ms. Muller this work composed in a woman's voice.
In the end, the narrator decides not to kill herself, as Lola did, but to immigrate to Germany, as most of Romania's Germans have done, both before and since the fall of Ceausescu in 1989. This marks the end of many communities that had survived from the 18th-century reign of the Empress Maria Theresa into our own less enlightened century. Ms. Muller conveys a certain sadness over the historical implications of emigration, the impending doom of her own native culture and society. She also offers a potent and repellent depiction of the world she left behind in Romania. A friend of the narrator works as an engineer in a slaughterhouse: ''Kurt told me every week about the slaughterhouse. The workers drank warm blood when they slaughtered the animals. They stole organ meats and brains. . . . Their wives and children are accomplices, Kurt said. The wives use the stiff cow tails for bottle brushes, and the children get the supple ones to play with.'' ''The Land of Green Plums'' addresses issues of vampirish complicity in the bloody rituals of an oppressive regime, whose hungry subjects, whether stealing fresh offal or green plums, ingest political poisons with historically protracted, corrosive consequences.