Eloquent words rise up to defy Ceausescu
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