One-Minute Book Reviews

February 10, 2010

A Review of the ‘The Appointment,’ a Novel by Herta Müller, Winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Literature

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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.

Furthermore: Muller, a Romanian-born resident of Germany, won the 2009 Nobel Prize in literatureThe Complete Review has biographical facts about Müller and links to other reviews.

Janice Harayda satirizes American literary culture and the publishing industry at www.twitter.com/FakeBookNews.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 14, 2008

A Review of 2008 Sibert Medalist and Caldecott Honor Book ‘The Wall’ by Peter Sís

A gifted artist recalls the days when freedom was as elusive as a yellow submarine in picture book that won the American Library Association’s Robert F. Sibert Medal for the most distinguished “information book” of 2007 today

The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain. By Peter Sís. Farrar, Straus and Giroux/Frances Foster Books, 56 pp., $18. Ages 8 and up.

By Janice Harayda

Peter Sís is a rarity – an artist who smartens up picture books when others dumb them down. He grew up in Czechoslovakia and seems to lack the usual Americans preconceptions about what children’s books “need” to contain. Perhaps partly for this reason, he does highly original work that has won him a MacArthur grant and many others.

A case in point is this memoir of his childhood behind the Iron Curtain, which today won the Robert F. Sibert Medal for the most distinguished “information book” of 2007 and a Caldecott Honor, both from the American Library Association www.ala.org. In The Wall Sís finds the midpoint between picture books and graphic novels by telling his story partly through panels similar to comic strips. This enables him to fit a remarkable amount of information into 56 pages.

Sís uses captioned drawings of himself to depict experiences such as going to Communist schools: “Children are encouraged to report on their families and fellow students. Parents learn to keep their opinions to themselves.” Because many American children would lack a context for such lines, he adds background in creative ways – for example, by using lines of explanatory text as frames for drawings. He enriches all of it through a wealth of visual details. including an image of a yellow submarine to show the joy that erupted when the Beatles visited Prague.

As in some of his earlier work, Sís shows that oppressed people long for freedom even when they are better off than many of their peers. Sís yearned for the artistic freedom stifled when under Communism. He says on his last page: “As long as he can remember, he will continue to draw.”

Best line/picture: A full-page picture of a maze suggests how Czechs changed street signs an effort to thwart the Soviet invasion in 1968, one of many memorable images.

Worst line/picture: Sís includes excerpts from what he calls “My Journals” from 1954–1977 would have benefited from a bit more explanation. Diaries might have been considered subversive if discovered by the Communist authorities. Did he really keep these “journals” or were they created after the fact?

Published: August 2007 www.petersis.com and www.fsgkidsbooks.com

Futhermore: Sís came to the U.S. in the 1980s and lives near New York City.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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