Book Review – Herta Muller The Land of Green Plumbs

Ayn Rand wrote something to the effect that “people who praise communism never lived under it.” Herta Muller has done an outstanding job expressing the same thoughts through her fiction. Similar in style and tone to The Appointment and The Passport, The Land of Green Plumbs presented another dystopian, yet believable, view of her native Rumania during the Ceausescu years.

I really liked the narration. The author chose a nameless narrator to present the story. The lack of a name created a sense of distance from the character closest to the reader. I interpreted this as a parallel for social relations in Rumania under the Communist Party. In Gao Xingjian’s One Man’s Bible, he described how living in a totalitarian state—in his case, China– impeded normal emotional relations between men and women. A fear that anyone could be an informer prevented it. I got this same sense of Ceausescu’s regime from the exposition in The Land of Green Plumbs.

Unlike so many ‘political’ novels, I found Muller’s prose outstanding. Her writing style reminded me of Cormack McCarthy and Ernest Hemmingway. The author preferred the use of nouns and verbs as opposed to modifiers. With that acknowledgement, she used adjectives and adverbs at the proper places. This method didn’t diminish the impact of the story at all. Here’s the narrator’s description of a discussion with her hairdresser. Like just about every scene in this book, it contained upsetting material…and this is just a trip to a hair stylist!

I stayed with my hairdresser as long as I could and told him everything I knew about my father’s life.

In this tale of death, my father’s life began at a time I knew best from the books of Edgar, Kurt, and Georg and least from Father himself: An SS-man who came back from the war, who had made graveyards and left places in a hurry, I told the hairdresser. Someone who had had to make a child and always keep an eye on his slippers. As I talked about his damn stupid plants, his dark, dark plumbs, his boozy songs for the Fuhrer, and his swollen liver, I was getting a permanent wave for his funeral.

            Before I left, the hairdresser said: My father was at Stalingrad. (65 – 66)

In spite of her minimalist approach to language, Muller still populated the book with lyrical flourishes. She used simile very well in the following line:

Hate was allowed to trample and destroy. To mow the love that sprang up in our closeness like long grass. (Page 75)

Here’s another great passage.

The world hasn’t waited for anyone, I thought. I didn’t have to walk, eat, sleep, and love someone in fear. (Page 34)

With beautiful albeit dark language like this, it didn’t surprise me that the author included poetry throughout the work. The tone of it surprised me even less. The Land of Green Plumbs included the most troubling poem I’ve ever read.

He who loves and leaves

Shall feel the wrath of God

God shall punish him

With the pinching beetle

The howling wind

The dust of the earth. (Page 153)

In 2009 the Swedish Academy awarded Muller the Nobel Prize in Literature for works such as this one. The version of the book I have included her Nobel Lecture. In it she discussed her life in communist Rumania. Some of the things she mentioned made it into The Land of Green Plumbs. The fact the author based the story on true events made the book that much more disturbing.

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