Book: The Appointment
Author: Herta Müller
Bookhad Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥
The wedding cake still had two windows left in half a wall, I ate a curtain.
During the time that I was reading this book, I said to the fellow admin of Bookhad, “She wrote this book when she was high.” And I mean it. I would not place this book on the plane of discernible reality. It’s hovering somewhere above in a sense where the mind is not in control and it is reeling.
As a part of my resolve to read books from various countries, after Ukraine, I went a little South-West and picked up the Romanian book The Appointment. Written by the Nobel laureate Herta Müller, this book opens with the unnamed narrator saying, “I’ve been summoned. Thursday, ten sharp.” It’s kind of an aberration that this line is not touted as one of the best opening lines. You know those listicles, don’t you? What happens after this is something that I cannot be darned to say! The entire book takes place on a tram journey from the narrator’s house to the destination where an interrogator named Major Albu will greet the narrator with a wet kiss on her hand. Set in the communist (and, if I may say so, insane) reign of Nicolae Ceauşescu, this book seems partly autobiographical. It can also be said that by keeping the narrator unnamed, Müller wanted it to represent ‘anyone’ in Romania.
The narrator, a factory seamstress, has been caught sewing marriage proposals into the hems of suits bound to Italy for export (“the first Italian who replied would be accepted”). Charged with prostitution, and framed subsequently by her colleagues, she has been attending a series of interrogations with Major Albu. This one could probably be her final one, unlike the many others that have gone before. She is extremely scared and hopeless about it, but she leaves quite early just so that she isn’t late. On the tram ride, her thoughts survey her life in clear sequences and she tells the reader all about them. She hops from one thought to another effortlessly (for herself) and sometimes tiresome (for the reader). Without any introduction and context to the book, you’d be forced to wonder if you’ve got all the pages in the right order and with all the words intact.
She tells the reader in great detail about Lilli and her sexual escapades. Lilli’s attempt at leaving the communist infested country and her fate. Then she thinks about her parents and how her father gradually disappeared from her lives – maybe just like the broom that fell in the corner of the room. There’s great detail about the exact incident which ended her first marriage, on a bridge, with a suitcase, and bent over the railing towards the river than ran below. The time when she went to a wedding where she ate a curtain. And of how she met Paul – she had gone to sell her wedding ring at the flea market, you see, and ended up with Paul whose mother did not approve of her.
Where were you.
As so often before, he’ll say: In my shirt and right with you.
Many may argue that this book is about nothing. Without a defined plot, conflict and a beginning and end, yes, it’s pretty safe to say so. This book is about nothing. There were times when I was reading the book that I wanted to stop. I just wanted to shut my Kindle and not look back at this monstrous piece of narration that just kept telling without showing, or even stopping for a chapter break. But I was unable to let it go. One of the reasons for my perseverance with the book was that I was curious to see how it ended. Did she get to Major Albu? Did someone kill her before she did? Did the secret police fill the tram and commit a gruesome act that would blow my mind? What was it that would happen? And 90% into the book, none of these things had happened. The book ended with the simplest seven words that there could be – the trick is not to go mad. Whether she meant this about herself in the tram, the people who she had seen go mad, or about the reader is unclear to me.
But here’s the thing – this book is not meant to be about anything. When you slot Müller into the category of writers that dabble in the ‘stream of consciousness’ one must learn to accept that none of this is about anything. Without trying to sound patronizing of this genre, the nothingness is exactly what I love about such books. I do understand that it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. So, to make The Appointment digestible to the reader, let’s go ahead and say it paints a grim and hopeless portrait of a country under the regime of a twisted mind. So much so that his oppression and censure led everyone to lose their minds and devoid them of the chance to live half-fractured lives like most other people in the world. But they didn’t. They were broken beyond repair. So much so that their lives lost meaning, and even their metaphors lost meaning.
People comb their hair at the movies before the light goes out, and even in the cemetery. While they’re parting their hair you can see their wariness of others collecting in their combs. But they cannot comb it out completely if they go on talking about it. The fear of strangers sticks to their combs and makes it greasy. People who talk about it can’t get rid of their fear of strangers; their combs are always clean.
Personally, I have both enjoyed and tired from reading this novel. Some of the lines are fantastic and the mind-addling bits are present in equal measure. It takes a good amount of concentration to stay hitched to the narrative. It also takes a good amount of suspension of expectation, too. There’s nothing that you can expect to be delivered from this book. Sure, if your expectations are that of finding severed blue-fingers inside hand-bags, then well, this is exactly what you should be reading.
In an interview, Herta Muller said that she is a broken person. Well yes, we all are, in our own damaged ways.
The trick is not to go mad.
Herta Müller was both in 1953 in a German-speaking village in Romania. In 1987, two years before the Ceauşescu regime was overthrown, she immigrated to Germany. She writes almost exclusively about life in Romania under Ceauşescu. Herta Müller won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2009. She lives in Berlin and writes in German.
Please share the ebook, if you have one. I’d like to read it.
i strongly advise a re-reading of the text.
It is reasonable to think that without a clearly defined plot and structure, and the use of “stream of consciousness” techniques, a story such as this may simply be “about nothing”. But in the hands of a Master – such as Muller – this couldn’t be further from the truth. The “truth” incidentally, is also something that is best “told”, not “shown”, even in fiction – it is far too important to be toyed around with – which she doesn’t.
Her “nothingness” of the genre is the void within which everything exist, and to love nothingness is to love everything albet in a safer kind of way – nothingness is just the pudding which hides the bitter pill of reality. Reality itself being an essential theme in The Appointment, just as in the works of Kafka, Kundera, Milosz and Solzhenitsyn – it is the reality of everyday insanity and mediocrity/banality of evil experienced by the writer.
The idea of Terror is not referred to in the review – which is the central theme of the story. After all, it is terror that dislodges the mind from the safe harbour of rational thought and sends it careening down the stream of consciousness. The journey is the metaphor, the recollections the plot and the soft prayer for strength at the end – the arc of the character – to generalise a bit.
The important thing to consider is that the world her characters inhabit isn’t “insane”, or simply “grim and hopeless” – it is one without beginning or end – for both those frames of perspective are acts of personal freedom – the freedom to tell your story in your way – something that doesn’t exist in that world. Not because of some spectacular and dramatic oppression from the State – but because of the banal and disempowering systems of injustice which are ubiquitous in everyday life (something true today as it was then – just more sinister).
This banality of evil doesn’t intend to shatter a person, rather they wear them down until resignation is all that is left – like a cruel school teacher’s punishment – yes, a form of insanity, where the only trick is to stay steadfast to the truth that you haven’t done anything wrong (The Umbridge Solution). The most Absurd of victories.
Makes me think how Orwell’s Winston (1984) could have easily carried on living if he had continued to renounce Big Brother – it was only when he gave up and embraced Big Brother, when they had broken him and made him a believer, that he was no longer worth keeping alive. This is perhaps why “the trick is not to go mad”.
“Under the regime of a twisted mind” the only sensible manner of living is to remain sane – in protest and rebellion.
Great review. I dont know if i would enjoy the read but I do like experimenting with different writing styles. I read Mr Fox few months ago and really enjoyed the non linear narrative. The book is a new one for me and by the review i find it very interesting
Mr. Fox by? Would you think it’s something we’d like to read?
It’s an interesting book. Why don’t you check it out and see if you’d like to read it?
I would check it out and see. Mr. Fox is written by Helen Oyeyemi. IT is about the conversations between a writer and his imaginary muse and latr on the muse takes control and makes the writer as a subject of the stories she herself writes. I had done a review of it a few weeks back. Here is the link in case you are interested. http://www.thebooksatchel.com/mr-fox-helen-oyeyemi-prerequisites-effects/
Thanks! Will check it out.