The Nobel prize-winner’s most recent novel to be published in English translation is a book of details. From the opening image – ‘The ant is carrying a dead fly three times its size’ – the way in which the Ceaușescu regime invaded and pervaded every aspect of Romanians’ lives is communicated through precise but simple descriptions of humans’ interactions – with each other and with the physical world around them.
In the wire factory where a central character works, the gatekeeper searches the workers’ bags for contraband as they leave for the day:
‘His decision also depends on the gatehouse shade, and on the taste of the sunflower seeds in his mouth. If a few kernels are rancid, his tongue turns bitter. His cheekbones clench up, his eyes grow stubborn.’
But Müller doesn’t reflect the regime’s control simply through imagery, she also demonstrates it through the ways she expresses these details, in the linguistic relationships she creates between words. The state’s version of reality filters down even to the structure of language, so that objects attach themselves to unlikely and illogical descriptions. A woman scratches herself with a knitting needle and the stitch counter
‘gets caught in the gap between the woman’s teeth and inside the eyes of the cat. The telephone is shrill. The ringing catches on the wool, the yarn climbs into the gatewoman’s hand. The ringing climbs into the cat’s stomach.’
The main thrust of the narrative first appears as such a suggestive, disconnected detail:
‘A shadow follows a woman … The woman sits, the shadow stops. The shadow doesn’t belong to the woman, just as the shadow of the wall doesn’t belong to the wall. The shadows have abandoned the things they belong to.’
But when the surveillance is explicit – when that woman, Adina, discovers that the Securitate have been in her apartment, and want her to know it – Müller allows the details to express everything she needs to say. Stepping on a fox-fur rug she has treasured since childhood, Adina finds the tail comes away. It is only when she goes into her kitchen and finds a half-eaten quince that she – and we – realise the damage to the rug is intentional. The heart-stopping moment is revealed through a simple thought about whoever it was who ate the quince: ‘You’d have to remember that no one would ever leave half a quince just lying there, otherwise it would dry out like a fur.’
The fur continues to lose its limbs, one by one. Each day Adina comes home to find a leg cut off but put back in place, so to the observer it is still attached. The Securitate is closing in and the time has come to flee. While hiding out in the country with her ex-partner, seismic events take place. These began, we now know, in Timișoara, the setting for this novel, but rather than relate them, Müller focuses instead on the details – using a chamber pot in front of someone else, the skin on a cooled bowl of soup, and in an unexpected and significant image, the cutting of fingernails. ‘Ever since they’ve been cutting the fox, my nails grow faster’ says Adina. ‘When you live in fear, your hair and nails grow faster.’ But Paul, her companion, contradicts her. Pointing to a picture of Ceaușescu he says, ‘If that were the case, his hair would grow all the way from the forehead down to the toes in a single day.’ Ceaușescu is terrified, so we know the revolution is under way.
At the end of the novel we do see the televised deaths of the Ceaușescus, but again the details are bare and simple – and the linguistic disruption continues. Just before being shot on screen, Ceaușescu’s eyes ‘saw the nail clipper on the table next to Adina’s hand’. In death the Ceaușescus are ‘two old peasants … lying on the ground, and the soles of their shoes peered into the room’.
This, for Adina and Paul, is a ‘bullet-pierced image that swells until it bursts through the skull because the image is bigger than their heads’.
Müller’s response to the impossibility of truly capturing such an image in words is to focus on the finest of details, describing them in the simplest but most creative of ways, in doing so offering us the most human aspects of her country’s story.
Reviewed by West Camel
THE FOX WAS EVER THE HUNTER
by Herta Müller
Translated by Philip Boehm
Published by Portobello Books/Granta (2016)
Read The Romanian Riveter in its entirety here.
West Camel is a writer, reviewer and editor. He edited Dalkey Archive’s Best European Fiction 2015, and is currently working for new press Orenda Books. His debut novel, Attend, is out now.
Read West Camel’s #RivetingReview of GARDEN BY THE SEA by Mercé Rodoreda
Read West Camel’s #RivetingReview of SWIMMING IN THE DARK by Tomasz Jedrowski
Read West Camel’s #RivetingReview of CAMILLE IN OCTOBER by Mireille Best
Read West Camel’s #RivetingReview of APOSTOLOFF by Sibylle Lewitscharoff
Read West Camel’s #RivetingReview of ABERRANT by Marek Šindelka
Read West Camel’s #RivetingReview of THE DEATH OF THE PERFECT SENTENCES by Rein Raud
Read West Camel’s #RivetingReview of THE BEAUTIES – ESSENTIAL STORIES by Anton Chekhov
Read West Camel’s #RivetingReview of THE HISTORY OF BEES by Maja Lunde
Read West Camel’s #RivetingReview of SOUNDS FAMILAR or THE BEAST OF ARTEK by Zinovy Zinik
Read West Camel’s #RivetingReview of SEEING PEOPLE OFF by Jana Beňová
Read West Camel’s #RivetingReview of STONE UPON STONE by Wiesław Myśliwski
Read West Camel’s #RivetingReview of A TREATISE ON SHELLING BEANS by Wiesław Myśliwski
Read West Camel’s #RivetingReview of THE YOUNG BRIDE by Alessandro Baricco
Read West Camel’s #RivetingReview of VILLA TRISTE by Patrick Modiano
Read West Camel’s #RivetingReview of THE BROTHER by Rein Raud
Read West Camel’s #RivetingReview of ISTANBUL ISTANBUL by Burhan Sönmez
Read West Camel’s #RivetingReview of CRÉ NA CILLE by Máirtin Ó Cadhain