A Disturbing Window Into a Mad Romanian World

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"The trick is not to go mad." This is what the heroine of Herta Mller's novel, "The Appointment," tells herself. But whether it is possible to retain one's sanity in an insane society remains an open question.

As George Orwell demonstrated so indelibly in "Nineteen Eighty-Four," one of the many abhorrent aspects of totalitarianism is its assault on reason. To those who seek absolute control, not only fairness and decency, but common sense and objective reality become obstacles and impediments.

A political refugee who fled the notably deranged Nicolae Ceausescu regime in Romania, Mller now lives in Berlin. Although born and raised in Romania, she was part of that country's ethnically German minority. Her prize-winning first novel, "Herztier," published in Germany in 1993, was issued three years later in English as "The Land of Green Plums." Her new book, "The Appointment," appeared in Germany under the somewhat wrier title, "Heute wr ich mir lieber nicht begegnet," which could be roughly translated as "Today I would have rather not have had an engagement." The engagement or appointment in this case is one that the heroine, a worker in a clothing factory, has with the Romanian secret police, who have repeatedly been summoning her for questioning. All this because she slipped notes saying "Marry me," with her name and address, into the linings of suits bound for export to Italy.

As she rides the tram to get to her dreaded appointment, we become privy to her anxieties, fears, thoughts and memories. Quite frankly, she--and almost every other character we encounter through her--seems mentally unbalanced. Albu, her insinuating interrogator, begins each session by planting a slimy kiss on the palm of her hand. Her current boyfriend, Paul, who sells radio antennas on the black market, seems nice enough but is constantly drunk. Her beautiful friend Lilli, killed while trying to flee to Hungary, had a penchant for much older men. The narrator's own father slept with a girl not much older than his daughter, which made our heroine think it might be a good idea to offer herself to him instead. Our heroine's ex-husband came from a family involved in sending her grandparents to a labor camp. In this world, it is almost impossible to know for certain who can be trusted: friends, neighbors, co-workers, even lovers and family members, are not above suspicion.

In this supposedly classless society, the smallest difference--newer shoes, cleaner clothes, a nicer belt--signals a higher or lower place on the totem pole. Minor details assume a major significance, nothing really makes sense, and the narrator (who seems none too bright to begin with) takes refuge in what psychologists might call obsessive-compulsive behavior, a.k.a. good, old-fashioned superstition. "They say that walnuts on an empty stomach are good for your nerves and your powers of reason. Any child knows that ... It was because I was all set to go by half past seven that I got to eat the walnut.... That day my interrogation was shorter than usual, I kept my nerve, and once I was back on the street, I thought to myself: That was thanks to the nut." The novel's tone also reflects a certain crudity and vulgarity of sensibility.

Like Mller's previous novel, which also depicted a world of paranoia, neurosis and confusion, "The Appointment" is not easy reading. It is sometimes difficult to tell whether we are reading about people driven mad by a mad regime or people who may not have had all their marbles in the first place.

The narrator is certainly a case in point: "....the reason I'm shy of objects is because I like them. I transfer the thoughts that are against me onto them. Then these thoughts go away, unless I talk about them--just like my wariness of people. Maybe it all collects in your hair....

"The fear of strangers sticks to the comb and makes it greasy. People who talk about it can't get rid of their fear of strangers; their combs are always clean."

Whether or not this novel resonates on a deeper level, it certainly manages to spatter us with a disturbing array of symptoms.

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