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by Herta Müller & translated by Michael Hulse & Philip Boehm

Pub Date: Sept. 13th, 2001
ISBN: 0-8050-6012-X
Publisher: Henry Holt

Romanian-born Müller (The Land of Green Plums, 1996, etc.) now lives in Berlin, having successfully fled after running afoul of the Ceausescu regime. Here, she offers a grim portrait of totalitarian life’s squalor and pain.

A young woman has been “summoned” to appear “at ten sharp” before the greasy Major Albu for another of several interrogations—sessions that can be cruel physically and are always so emotionally. The reason? The young woman, it seems, working at the time (she’s now been fired) in a factory that makes clothing for export, tucked notes—saying “marry me”—into the pockets of a number of pairs of pants destined for Italy. She would rather live in Italy? She doesn’t believe in her own country? She wouldn’t have been summoned at all if she’d agreed to keep sleeping with her despicable boss Nelu—who, upon rejection, trumped up tales of pants-pocket notes to France and Sweden also. To top it off, now the man she’s living with, Paul, has been run off the road on his motorcycle, and his side-business of making TV aerials (so people can tune in Bulgaria) has been trashed and he’s been fired from his factory job. On top of the gratuitous and frightening harassment, there’s the rundown squalor of life—a row of dusty glass eyes in a pharmacy window, an apartment building called “the leaning tower” because it isn’t built straight, much drunkenness, empty lots, shabby trams with no “fixed schedule.” And there’s the past: a first husband who out of weakness almost kills his young wife; the promiscuous best friend Lili, who, trying to flee the country, is attacked—and devoured—by dogs; grandparents sent to the camps while their land was expropriated; a sadistic father-in-law who in earlier years, as “the Perfumed Commissar,” was in charge of local expropriations. Says the young woman, on her way to Major Albu (the whole novel is “told” during one tram ride), “The trick is not to go crazy.”

Sensitive, observant, unrelenting—and compelling.