Mueller, Herta, The Land of Green Plums (Hertzier, 1994), translated by Michael Hoffman, 1998

Big Les Murray’s been dudded again. The Nobel Prize for Literature has gone to Herta Mueller, Romanian-born German-writing novelist, whose work deals with the life of the German minority in Romania after the war (they didn’t have a good time of it), and the atmosphere of menace and strangulation in the Eastern bloc in the post-war years.

Mueller is another of those writers who have all but an ultra-literate few scrambling for the Wiki, and then writing authoritatively that her most accomplished novel is Hertzier of 1994, a complex portrayal of life under Ceaucescu.

Her most accomplished novel is Hertzier of 1994, a complex portrayal of life under Ceaucescu.

At the risk of taking the piss, your correspondent has read this book, translated as The Land of Green Plums about a decade ago, during a three month sojourn in Bucharest in 2006 — a visit, during which, it became pretty essential to understand what the hell this place was all about.

Green Plums — the title sounds like an SBS movie, but it refers to the unripe fruit people eat (thus getting stomach cramps) because everyone was so frikkin hungry — is plangently sad, because it manages to capture the deterioration of self under a dictatorship like Ceaucescu’s, the death of trust and meaning.

Ceaucescu’s Romania was unlike every other Eastern European dictatorship, and possibly that of any in the world, a mad post-Stalinist Disneyland whose history is bad news for people who think it takes guns and tanks to keep people down. Ceaucescu’s Securitate used torture, there was political sentencing, but after he came to power in 1965 there was no gulag, no camps of the types still ticking along in North Korea, or our good friend China.

There was a cult of personality, of ludicrous proportions — but there was also a flow of Western popular culture. In the morning children would sing hymns to Ceaucescu (‘O Nikolai, the children of Romania are bringing you love burning love from their heart…you are the granite mountain-top on which the sun of socialism rises….’) in the evening, while the power was still on, they’d listen to Depeche Mode and watch Dallas. Banning and unbanning was ad-hoc and half-hearted. Black and grey markets were general.

As the celebrated film 4 months, 3 days…etc established, the whole place ran like a giant dormitory. But 4 months surprised me because it didn’t capture what everyone had spoken of as life in the 80s — the torpor, the hunger, the sense that everything was literally falling apart. To pay off IMF debts Ceaucescu exported everything he could, including most of the food. For two years there was virtually no meat. Fist fights broke out in bakeries. One in three people was an official ‘Securitate’ informer, a system so overloaded that it collapsed — people started making up so much to appease their handlers (who were themselves making stuff up) that the system actually became more porous than better-run dictatorships.

Meanwhile Ceaucescu was rebuilding a quarter of old Bucharest, not in a grim modernist style, but in a bizarre ornamental Italianate postmodernism — grand avenues of apartments with quiffs, curlicues and balconies, which would be a kind of masterpiece in a hundred years, if the rendering was not done so cheaply that bits of them are even now falling off. At the end of the grandest boulevard of these behemoths (a typical address was Sector 3, Building 4 Door 5, Floor 3, Apartment 7) was the ‘Palace of the People’, the enormous building where the entire Romanian government was to be housed.

Built 24/7 under arc lights, by the army and with forced labour. Larger than anything except the Pentagon, it has the kitsch exuberance of a Thornbury reception centre, all marble, cherry wood and chandeliers (1500 of them — 1400 have never been switched on).

A tour of the place takes you down corridor after corridor, leading off to corridor after corridor, an infinity effect. The building is its own Kafkesque statement on its inspiration.

As both Green Plums and 4 Months captures, one standard currency — for a ticket out, for food, for an illegal abortion — was sex. Sex and violence. There were fist fights at bakeries for buns, and sexual favours (often by a woman on behalf of her whole family) became, in rural areas, increasingly an automatic part of getting anything.

The juxtaposition of squalor and farce seemed to explain what had propelled me to start thinking and asking about the place, as I stayed long past the two weeks I’d intended — and that was the extreme anger of the Romanians, especially in Bucharest. They were angry with themselves, angry with the world (Ceaucescu had been duchessed by the West for his outspoken resistance to the USSR in the Cold War years — hence all those IMF loans. Hence a decade of misery in the 80s, paying them back), ashamed that it had taken them so long to throw him off. There was no Prague Spring to look back on, no Charter 77. He had worn them down with hunger and kitsch to the point where the system was so amorphous that there was little to stand against. It is the sense of self and world dissolving unstoppably, that there will be no moment of redeeming resistance, that Green Plums captures. It is a corrective not merely to Ostalgie, but to the cartoonish notion that the human spirit will always emerge, a far more melancholic vista, in its way, than that of Solzhenitsyn or Primo Levi.

German readers will have to tell us whether the prize is deserved on literary merit or not, or whether the gesture is in part political. What we can say is that it better be bloody good to justify our Les Murray being dudded again.

God knows why the Nobel committee are holding off on Murray. I can’t believe that his adolescent paranoid politics are being punished, the way that Borges was punished for his support (in his blind senescence) for the Galtieri dictatorship. So what’s the hold-up? The man is not only the English language’s greatest living poet, he’s one of the greatest poets since someone wrote down the epic of Gilgamesh. Here’s Pigs, from his website:

Pigs

Us all on sore cement was we.
Not warmed then with glares. Not glutting mush
under that pole the lightning’s tied to.
No farrow-shit in milk to make us randy.
Us back in cool god-shit. We ate crisp.
We nosed up good rank in the tunnelled bush.
Us all fuckers then. And Big, huh? Tusked
the balls-biting dog and gutsed him wet.
Us shoved down the soft cement of rivers.
Us snored the earth hollow, filled farrow, grunted.
Never stopped growing. We sloughed, we soughed
and balked no weird till the high ridgebacks was us
with weight-buried hooves. Or bristly, with milk.
Us never knowed like slitting nor hose-biff then.
Nor the terrible sheet-cutting screams up ahead.
The burnt water kicking. This gone-already feeling
here in no place with our heads on upside down.

And that’s one of his less knotty ones. Did the last half-dozen prizewinners do anything much like this? It’s hard to know in the case of the non-English writers, but given that they’re novelists I’m guessing, not much.

Is Murray’s candidature mozzed by the prize’s stipulation that it be for literature ‘of an idealist nature’? One can hardly say that Jellinik or Coetzee fill that brief, if it means, as it seems to, concerned with lofty ideals rather than the grit and smudge of everyday existence.

But if Les is in the sin bin, it’s nothing compared to the other worthy, Swede Tomas Transtromer, who is a victim of the Academy’s earlier habit of overfavouring Nordics, culminating in an award to a member of the Academy who was so upset by the subsequent scandal that he killed himself or, as the Swedes call it, made a late career move.

Transtromer’s poetry is spacy and baggy in translation, but it uses the virtues of Swedish — its rough directness, lack of a Latin register, near absence of the German verb-sentence-ending-thing, to create poetry as sharp and forceful as an axe through your skull. One shouldn’t really quote the translations by Robert Bly (‘Iron John’) but here’s Outskirts:

Men in overalls the same color as earth rise from a ditch.
It’s a transitional place, in stalemate, neither country nor city.
Construction cranes on the horizon want to take the big leap,
but the clocks are against it.
Concrete piping scattered around laps at the light with cold tongues.
Auto-body shops occupy old barns.
Stones throw shadows as sharp as objects on the moon surface.
And these sites keep on getting bigger
like the land bought with Judas’ silver: “a potter’s field for
burying strangers.”

But I do so to illustrate one bizarre fact and that is that Transtromer has said that his later work was influenced by, of all people, Kenneth Slessor, and that the Sless’s Five Bells changed the way he thought about poetry. Remember that boring poem Night-Ride you had to read at school — about a train stopping halfway on a journey at midnight? The work above is obviously a transformation of it, except in Swedish it sounds like it’s rising from the very earth it describes.

With Trans and the local boy I thought we had the quinella covered. But next year, next year. Eat your greens, Les.

Peter Fray

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