Atmospheric, lyrical novel from Nobel Prize–winning writer Müller (Traveling on One Leg, 1998, etc.) of life in Romania during the closing days of the Ceausescu dictatorship.
Considered Müller’s most difficult, this novel first appeared in 1992. The German original permits the rendering of the title as, “back then, the fox was the hunter.” Now the fox is definitely the quarry. It takes a while to come to that point, however, for the first 100 or so pages of Müller’s book are given over to densely rendered, poetic descriptions of people and places in a town along the Danube that sometimes have only peripherally to do with the main action; in that inventory, flies, ants, dogs, and poplars figure prominently. Adina, the central character, is a teacher, her boyfriend, Paul, a musician. They are not exactly activists, not exactly hard-core intellectuals, but even so, they’re suspect enough that a fox fur that Adina has had since girlhood is steadily being whittled away, taunting evidence that while they’re at work, the Securitate is visiting their apartment. Someone is always watching. Even Pavel, the paramour of Adina’s friend Clara, isn’t immune from being spied on as the two make love in an apparently deserted cornfield—and he’s one of the spies: “Aren’t you a lawyer,” Clara asks him. “Yes, he says, but not at the courthouse.” In this world, a mild joke about the dictator takes on the most serious contours. Adina’s friendship with Clara frays over her choice of lovers, but even so, Clara warns Adina that the noose is tightening, giving her time to escape, as Müller herself did, to the West—though Adina worries that in trying to flee they’ll wind up gunned down in a cornfield: “And every now and then, she said, a hair will get stuck in your teeth while you’re eating, and it won’t be one of the baker’s that just happened to land in the dough.”
An essential work of post–Iron Curtain literature and a harrowing portrait of life under suspicion.