Posted by: Jeff | June 10, 2010

Book Review: “The Appointment” by Herta Müller

Romania’s Nicolae Ceauşescu was a horribly repressive authoritarian despot who plunged his country into fear and darkness. Herta Müller’s “The Appointment” is a novel set in this state of fear, and depicts the internal meanderings of a young woman, who, due to a rash and desperate decision, is caught in the web of the socialist state.

This young woman’s crime is nothing more than sewing a marriage proposal into the lining of pants produced in her factory and destined for arrival in Italy. So desperate to leave Romania – the country that casually shot and killed her best friend for trying to leave – she throws away any vestige of happiness and security in pursuit of an unknown dream. Müller captures this desperation vividly – the entire novel takes place as an internal monologue on a train ride to face a fresh round of interrogation. Will this be the last trip to see the feared Albu, henchman of the socialist state?

As her thoughts wander through every nook and cranny of her life – from her unhappiness with her previous husband to the thrill of meeting her current man, from the resignation of submitting to an affair with her boss to the fear of ending the affair and soliciting his vicious reprisal, this young woman’s life is laid bare for the reader.

It’s an interesting insight into the way fear affects one young woman. And on those merits it is a compelling vignette. But vignettes don’t make a complete novel, and my real gripe with “The Appointment” is that it never gives more than a passing allusion to the terrors of the socialist regime that gives the narrative its structure. There’s no real discernible narrative – in fact the structure becomes a bit too post-modern for the material. It becomes impossible to keep track of chronology. Thoughts are strung together wantonly – what provokes her to reflect on her relationship with her ex-husband’s father? Characters are mere sketches in the young woman’s thoughts. It’s almost as if the people in her life are no different than her fellow passengers on the train, who catch her momentary attention before she drifts into another line of thought.

If the intention is to cast the protagonist as a woman completely isolated in a frozen country, distrustful of others and disconnected from even those who she feels some compassion toward, then the novel hits its mark. But I can’t say that it was a particularly enjoyable read. The reader learns little about life under a domineering regime – the young woman’s emotional detachment does not feel unique to the structural circumstances surrounding her.

I read Müller because of her recent receipt of the Nobel Prize for Literature. In that recognition, Müller was given credit for giving voice to the voiceless suffering under authoritarian regimes in Eastern Europe. Perhaps her other works are better examples of this. In “The Appointment”, at least, I got the sense that our young protagonist was first and foremost unhappy with her own life, and that the lack of opportunity to change direction was the worst punishment the state could proffer. Albu’s interrogation read like a game of cat and mouse, where the predatory cat wouldn’t know what to do even if it did catch the mouse (which it never did).

In the end, “The Appointment” feels a bit like a Kundera novel without its characteristic consciousness of wider social and political concerns. It’s all despairing monologue, little narrative or meaning.

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Responses

  1. I totally disagree. Muller nails it! Granted, the plot lines are not organized neatly, and the novel clearly has a postmodern feel. The stream of consciousness the unnamed narrator undergoes on a tram ride to her designated appointment with Ceausescu’s secret police maps out the unsettling feeling of life under European totalitarianism, a world turned upside down, where no life is secure, no one can be trusted, and no bond remains unbroken. This novel is not for the faint hearted, and it is not a simple read, but in this reader’s humble opinion, if you are willing to put in the time, you come out with a worthwhile experience.


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