This is the first time I’m reviewing a book I’m uncertain whether to recommend. The Passport is a slim novella by Nobel Prize Winner Herta Müller. I bought it at an antiques place, aged paper sandwiched between blue and white ceramic plates and tarnished hand saws. (spoilers)
Since Windisch made the decision to emigrate, he sees the end everywhere in the village. And time standing still for those who want to stay.
Set in a German village in Romania during Ceausescu’s dictatorship, the village miller, Windisch, sees decay and death all around him. He despises his wife Katharina (formerly a stunning beauty) for engaging in survival sex during the aftermath of war. And also, one suspects, for not being Barbara, his true love who died (along with her virtue) during the same conflict.
He is regularly bribing village officials with flour to get a passport, his family’s ticket out of communist Romania. But he keeps being told that it will ‘take more than flour’. It is an open secret that both the priest and the militiaman will require a bribe of the flesh. He agonises, tries to find another way. He justifies himself by telling himself that his daughter is not a virgin, because of the way she walks. And in the end, pimps her to the officials to get his precious documents, and despises her for it.
Allegory and Symbolism
Amalie pulls the red dress over her head… Amalie’s red mouth is in the mirror.
It is laced through with allegory and superstition that didn’t really add to the story. The villagers burn an apple tree that they think has been possessed by the devil. Owls circle the houses of the dying. The miller breaks a mirror, said to presage 7 years bad luck.
Amalie wears a red dress and red lipstick to her rape. Her mother sells the dress before they move, as a symbol that she will not have to do that again, not in the glorious West. Perhaps the most frustrating aspect is that Windisch obviously sees Amalie’s degradation as his sacrifice. He is more concerned about his reputation than her suffering. There is an exquisitely written, utterly grotesque scene, where her parents are helping her get ready to seduce the militiaman. It’s like the family are pretending she is getting ready for a date; her mother tells her not to wear too much eyeshadow, lest people talk.
In the End
The best two stories are those outside of Windisch’s head. The one of Amalie’s disastrous date, where her lover abandons her (and suggests she instead marry a disturbed local boy who attacked her as a child). And Katharina’s tale of survival sex in the gulag. It’s no coincidence that these scenes happen outside the village, and away from the perspective of our tortured and torturing miller.
Would I recommend The Passport? This is a difficult one, because it is beautifully written. It is high quality. It is also bleak, dark and misogynistic. I wouldn’t want to read it again and will be donating it. But I do want to read her other works, particularly her non fiction.