A Romanian-born laureate evokes the terrors of the Ceauşescu regime
The Appointment: A Novel. By Herta Müller. Translated by Michael Hulse and Philip Boehm. Picador, 214 pp., $15, paperback.
By Janice Harayda
Herta Müller might seem to have little except her birthplace in common with the Romanian-born playwright Eugène Ionesco. But The Appointment shares some of its literary DNA with Rhinocéros, Ionesco’s haunting allegory of conformity, built on the life of a man who watches in horror as the people around him turn into rhinoceroses. In that absurdist play, the hero fights to retain his individuality as others devolve into beasts. In Müller’s novel, the characters have all but lost the battle for their humanity. They are crushed, driven mad, or killed by the tyranny of Nicolae Ceauşescu and his secret police.
The Appointment takes the form of an interior monologue by a young seamstress who was fired from her factory job for slipping notes that said “Marry me” into the pockets of men’s white linen suits bound for Italy and signing each slip with her name and address. She intended, or so she says, to wed the first man who answered, and she undergoes repeated and dehumanizing interrogations by the secret police about the matter. Were her notes to unknown men a sign of insanity or a reasonable approach to the crushing realities of life in postwar Romania?
That question is one of many that go unanswered. As she rides a tram to her latest interrogation, the young narrator drifts mentally back and forth between her fellow passengers and the torturous events of her life and that of her family and friends under the brutal Ceauşescu regime. The plot has little suspense, narrative thrust, and, at times, coherence. And Müller’s writing resembles that of Joyce Carol Oates: You read it for virtues other than elegantly turned phrases.
But The Appointment offers sharp glimpses of a world few Americans know and fewer still know well. In Müller’s Romania, residents can trust no one. They risk death if they try to flee to Hungary. And they must live without necessities such adequate food or clothing if they stay. Adults borrow children so they can claim extra rations of meat or milk. Factory seamstresses make elegant dresses for export but may buy only the rejects, stained by oil from sewing machines, twice a year — before International Labor Day and the Day of Liberation From the Yoke of Fascism.
Against such bleakness, you question whether putting notes in pockets of strangers’ suits was as depraved as it at first seems. The narrator of The Appointment appears perfectly lucid when she reflects, in a poignant observation late in the book, “As long as I was still young, I wanted to go to the kind of beautiful country the clothes were exported to.” Müller’s achievement is to make you see why, in some circumstances, it might be an act consummate sanity to slip into strangers’ suit pockets notes that say, “Marry me.”
Best line: “You don’t have to be particularly bad off to think: This can’t be all the life I get.”
Worst line: ”A breeze was rustling in the ash trees, I listened to the leaves, perhaps Paul was listening to the water.”
Published: 2001 (first U.S. edition), September 2002 (Picador paperback 2002)
Reading-group recommendation? The Appointment would be a tough sell to many book clubs. But it has barely 200 pages that, if lacking in high-octane narrative drive, are tautly written. It might appeal most to clubs that enjoy books in translation or on social-justice issues, including reading groups based at universities or in churches or synagogues.
© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.