Since reading The Land of Green Plums last year, purportedly Müller's most outstanding work, I had been looking forward to reading something of hers again. When I realized that finding a copy of The Appointment locally was an exercise in futility, I went and bought one from Book Depository, which was shipped late last year. I hadn’t even thought of reading that one yet when a bookish friend gifted me with a copy of The Passport for Christmas, and that one being the shorter read of the two, I decided to read it first.
The Passport is about Windisch, the town miller in a small German village in Banat, a region in Müller’s native Romania, who has decided to emigrate to West Germany with his family: his Russian wife, Katharina, and nursery schoolteacher-daughter, Amalie. Unfortunately, they lived during Ceausescu’s dictatorship in Romania, and getting the required passports for emigration proved to cost so much more than they bargained for.
Herta Müller was bestowed the Nobel prize for literature in 2009 for her work about the “landscape of the dispossessed” – she had her own horror stories when she lived through and suffered under Ceausescu’s totalitarian regime. This was the setting for The Land of Green Plums, and so it is with The Passport.
Initially, I thought this would be a short and easy read. While I will concede the “short,” it was nothing close to “easy”. Instead of breezing through the sparse and simplistic language, I found it difficult to grasp the ideas per chapter – none of which are longer than a couple of pages, at most – so much so that I had to gradually develop a proper pacing lest I miss out on something important behind the words.
Windisch puts his elbows on the table. His hands are heavy. Windisch puts his face in his heavy hands. The veranda doesn’t grow. It’s broad daylight. For a moment the veranda falls to a place where it never was before. Windisch feels the blow. A stone hangs in his ribs.
Windisch closes his eyes. He feels his eyes. He feels his eyeballs in his hands. His eyes without a face.
With naked eyes and with the stone in his ribs, Windisch says loudly: ‘A man is nothing but a pheasant in the world.’ What Windisch hears is not his voice. He feels his naked mouth. It’s the walls that have spoken.
For, beneath the unpretentious writing and bare words, so much meaning lies. And it would be a shame to overlook anything if it should be read in haste.
The entire work is an allegory of various things. Priest is to church. Militiaman is to state. Amalie is to Romanian citizens. The owl as a symbol of death is presumably Romanian, although I am not so certain. It is all up to the reader to decide, in the end. I believe that for every turn of the page, there is something for the reader to ponder on – because that’s what I did all throughout.
What jarred me about the book – it still does – was the oppression that pushed – shoved – men like Windisch into doing inconceivable and heart-rending things in order to be given the chance to start life anew. This novella begged the question: how much would you be willing to sacrifice for something that you desperately want – need – because it is necessary for continued existence? The oppression and difficulties of the citizens under Ceausescu’s regime are not unfamiliar territory, but this one aspect of it is. When you strip the story of its embellishments and trimmings, the idea of sacrificing so much in order to obtain a passport is just too drastic – stupid, perhaps?
But see, the passport symbolizes opportunity. A new life elsewhere. Hope. A renewed existence. Freedom – from oppression, from poverty, from corruption. See, the passport is not just a bunch of paper stapled together as proof of identity. It holds the promise of a new day for its bearer. Perhaps that's why it was so difficult to get, why it costs too much. For the state that grants it and the dictator at the helm, it signifies liberating a citizen from its clutches, never to return again.
So, how much would you be willing to give up just to have one?
Book Details: My own, trade paperback, a Christmas gift from Patrick (Thank you!)