Elo­quent words rise up to defy Ceaus­escu

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - John Free­man

How can a writer con­jure the de­hu­man­ised? And how are we to read of such char­ac­ters from a safe dis­tance? Both ques­tions gust through No­bel lau­re­ate Herta Muller’s re­mark­able novel The Fox Was Ever the Hunter, now avail­able for the first time in English, in which a hand­ful of school­teach­ers and fac­tory work­ers strug­gle through day-to­day life in the last days of Ni­co­lae Ceaus­escu’s bru­tal regime in Ro­ma­nia.

The novel ar­rows to us from 1992, when it was pub­lished in Ger­many, five years af­ter Muller had em­i­grated from Ro­ma­nia to West Ber­lin with her then hus­band. That was the end of a long pe­riod of ha­rass­ment, in­tim­i­da­tion and sur­veil­lance Muller de­scribed bril­liantly in her es­say In Every Lan­guage there are Other Eyes.

“Af­ter my first book was pub­lished the vil­lagers spat in my face when they came across me in the street,” she writes of Nadirs, her 1982 de­but, about a child­hood in a Banat Swabian ham­let. “The bar­ber an­nounced to my grand­fa­ther, a man of al­most 90 who had been his client every week for decades, that from here on he would no longer shave him.”

Nadirs was cen­sored by the state, some­times with bizarre speci­ficity. For in­stance, every use of the word suit­case was omit­ted by the Ro­ma­nian pub­lisher. It was deemed “an in­flam­ma­tory word be­cause the em­i­gra­tion of the Ger­man mi­nor­ity was sup­posed to be a taboo sub­ject”.

Muller had am­ple ex­pe­ri­ence with lin­guis­tic ha­rass­ment, mostly from Ro­ma­nia’s no­to­ri­ously ruth­less Se­cu­ri­tate se­cret po­lice. Af­ter her stud­ies, she worked in an en­gi­neer­ing plant as a trans­la­tor of tech­ni­cal man­u­als, a place that sounds not dis­sim­i­lar from the fac­tory in The Fox was Ever the Hunter.

Af­ter she re­fused an en­treaty to work for the se­cret po­lice, her dic­tio­nar­ies were moved out­side her of­fice and she had to trans­late in cold stair­wells. They at­tempted to make her un­able to do her work, which would make her even more vul­ner­a­ble. “You’ll be sorry,” she re­called one agent say­ing to her af­ter she re­jected him. “Well drown you in the river.”

She would not have been the first to suf­fer such a fate. Luck­ily, she came from a fam­ily of sur­vivors. Muller’s mother, born to a Ger­man mi­nor­ity per­se­cuted un­der the Sovi­ets, once lived in a hole for four days to es­cape de­por­ta­tion to Rus­sian work camps. Muller too did more than sur­vive: she built a life as a writer around re­claim­ing oc­cluded his­tory with ex­tra­or­di­nary, imag­is­tic nov­els.

To read The Fox was Ever the Hunter, the rage of the revo­lu­tion that ended with the dic­ta­tor’s mur­der is en­tirely un­der­stand­able. Power out­ages turn the streets black, bread lines keep peo­ple hun­gry, fac­tory life is grim and ex­ploita­tive, and the Se­cu­ri­tate’s eyes see ev­ery­thing. Every class­room fea­tures a photo of Ceaus­escu and every day the news­pa­per leads with his pho­to­graph.

“The fore­lock shines,” Muller writes of Ceaus­escu’s face and fa­mous hair­line, star­ing out at one of her char­ac­ters from the morn­ing pa­per. “The black in­side the eye stares out of the news­pa­per every day, peer­ing into the coun­try.”

The Fox was Ever the Hunter feels like a doc­u­men­tary novel, but reads like po­etry. In 33 chap­ters, the book spi­rals gently out­wards, Muller’s at­ten­tion a heavy ob­ject dropped into dark wa­ter.

Here are the job­less fish­ing in a corpse-lined river, chil­dren roped into the to­mato har­vest but pun­ished for eat­ing any fruit them­selves. Here are fac­tory work­ers cop­u­lat­ing stand­ing up in the shad­ows, des­per­ate for warmth.

Among the writ­ers who sur­vived life in the com­mu­nist bloc, Muller has writ­ten most poignantly about the way sur­veil­lance and state con­trol at once ne­ces­si­tated and warped the fab­ric of love. In her 2009 novel The Hunger An­gel, there are sim­i­lar scenes of starv­ing Ger­man mi­nori­ties meet­ing se­cretly to make love as they toil away in gu­lag work camps.

The Fox was Ever a Hunter is a short book, but the way Muller nar­rates gives it a dense lu­mi­nes­cence, like wet stone seen at night. Con­tours sud­denly shine into view. Slowly, Ad­ina emerges as a pro­tag­o­nist. A school­teacher with a watch­ful eye, she be­comes in­volved in gath­er­ings that earn her the Se­cu­ri­tate’s at­ten­tion. Paul, a lover of sorts, is an actor. He says reck­less things.

One of the many as­ton­ish­ments of this novel is how Muller builds her char­ac­ters. In one early scene, Ad­ina walks home fol­lowed by a man with a flash­light. Rather than linger here, Muller pulls back to de­scribe how poplars bear down on the street, “houses crowd to­gether”. The night it­self seems to be con­trolled by the gov­ern­ment.

Where the shrub­bery is dense, night lurks poised be­tween the fo­liage and as­sault. If the city is without power and dark, the night comes from be­low. First it cuts off the legs. The shoul­ders are still draped with a gray light, just enough for shak­ing heads or shut­ting eyes. But not enough to see by.

As the novel ex­pands, it faces the enor­mous chal­lenge of bring­ing char­ac­ters into view on a stage de­fined by its dark­nesses, when life was de­signed to erase ev­ery­one but the dic­ta­tor. Most peo­ple in the book do not have a name. They are only “a woman”, “a man”, “a child” and some­times even “the cat”.

Still, in brief shards we be­gin to meet Clara, who works in a wire fac­tory run by a klep­to­crat- ic rapist; the actor Paul; and Pavel, Clara’s lover, who is a lawyer who may or may not be part of the state ma­chin­ery.

In most books, es­pe­cially nov­els writ­ten in the West, nar­ra­tive ten­sion de­rives from for­ward mo­men­tum, from be­com­ing, or evo­lu­tion. Here that ma­chin­ery has been turned in­wards to cre­ate pres­sure. Propul­sion comes from what hap­pens when peo­ple are liv­ing a life that is all they know, but in some dim fash­ion, know to be un­ten­able.

“Even 10 years later the gate woman recog­nises Grig­ore’s many chil­dren who have no idea they are re­lated,” Muller writes of the fac­tory di­rec­tor who rapes his work­ers. “By then tons of rust and wire mesh have been driven through the gate ... And by then these chil­dren, too, are work­ing in the fac­tory. They never wished it, they’re only here be­cause the fac­tory is all they know.” Mo­ments like this il­lus­trate how The Fox was

Ever the Hunter os­cil­lates be­tween nar­ra­tive and doc­u­men­tary. Songs lit­ter this book, too: pa­tri­otic songs, for­bid­den songs, snatches of po­etry. Words are break­ing loose of the dic­ta­tor’s con­trol, float­ing through the air. They’re not even emerg­ing from char­ac­ters’ mouths — their mouths are speak­ing them.

One day Ad­ina gets a sign that she is be­ing watched — part of a fox fur rug has been clipped off, then an­other — but by this point in the novel, the feel­ing is that if sight has been con­trolled by the gov­ern­ment, lan­guage has its own will to power. It wants to speak the truth, if in images, names, names of ob­jects. It calls to peo­ple to wake up. The gears of con­trol are slip­ping.

Be­fore she em­i­grated to Ger­many, Muller crit­i­cised re­stric­tions on free­dom of speech, a po­si­tion for which she suf­fered. From the mo­ment she left, Muller ex­er­cised her voice with a fury that vi­brates off the page nearly a quar­ter­century later. In this vividly po­etic novel, she re­minds us what life without that free­dom looked, felt, and tasted like.

THE RAGE OF THE REVO­LU­TION THAT ENDED WITH THE DIC­TA­TOR’S MUR­DER IS UN­DER­STAND­ABLE

The Fox was Ever the Hunter By Herta Muller Trans­lated by Philip Boehm Granta, 256pp, $27.99

Since leav­ing Ro­ma­nia, Herta Muller has writ­ten with fury about her ex­pe­ri­ences and per­se­cu­tion

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