When Herta Muller won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2009 many people were surprised. After reading her novel “The Land of Green Plums” I am too.
The story is semi-autobiographical. It concerns a young Romanian woman who is part of the German minority during Ceausescu’s violent and oppressive regime. The book follows the young woman from her arrival at university until her escape into Germany. Accompanying her along this journey are her friend (that she despises) Tereza and three male friends: Edgar, Kurt, and Georg. She is also haunted by the devious Captain Pjele, who is the world’s most passive villain as he half-heartedly attempts to imprison the friends at every turn.
The book is agonizingly sluggish. It is composed of jilted, uneven vignettes. The book switches time and place so much that it is hard to feel connected to any part. Muller focuses so much on trying to create the atmosphere of oppression that she forgets to have a coherent story. Worse of all, she fails to make any character sympathetic or even fully understood. Though the back of the book claims that it is “a powerful, affecting story—one that makes clear the real value of small triumphs and fleeting moments of happiness,” a better description may go something like this:
A young woman goes to school and at some point meets three boys. She then meets a number of unpleasant people with unpleasant quirks. She talks about her mother’s back pain and tells short stories about her disappointing childhood. This repeats ad nauseam.
Occasional moments of brilliance do not make up for dreary nature of most of the book. The one real highlight of the books comes at the beginning when the protagonist tells the story of Lola, a strange thieving girl driven to suicide.
I really had to grit my teeth to get through this one. It was so uninteresting and so insistent of its own power that I had read it in tiny bits like a pill you have to cut in half.