Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Appointment by Herta Muller

Now all I hear is the noise; I don't go to the window, and I don't look at the moon.  I remember that it looks like a goose egg, and that it leaves the city on one side of the sky while the sun comes up at the other.  Nothing's changed there; that's how it was even before I knew Paul, when I used to walk to the tram stop on foot.  On the way I thought:  How bizarre that something so beautiful could be up in the sky, with no law down here forbidding people to look at it.

What does it mean to love in authoritarian state?  When life is proscribed by a law that is exacting and absolute yet somehow arbitrary in its application, what areas of life does it not proscribe or threaten?

The Appointment is a novel about a woman living in Romania under Nicolae Ceausescu, supposedly the most repressive of dictators in the fringe of Soviet states.  Ceausescu himself is not mentioned except on the dust jacket; the narrator (who is nameless) battles with smaller authorities.  She is summoned, frequently and randomly, to appear in the office of Albu, a local magistrate.  The appointments are always at ten sharp, that sharp emphasizing the bureaucracy's menace as well as its exactitude.  The crime which Albu grills her about: sewing notes into clothes bound for Italy that read "marry me."  In his interrogations, which Muller only allows us to glimpse, he suggests that he suspects her of more vital communication with the West, but more than anything it seems that the narrator's crime is simply wanting to escape.  For this crime the authorities impress her neighbors into watching her movements; for this crime her husband is nearly run over on his motorcycle.

Albu can gain nothing from these interrogations; the narrator cannot escape them.  Yet the strength of the repression is predicated on this aimless urgency.  But the narrative of The Appointment revolves around one tram ride to Albu's office broken by the narrator's reminiscences, which recount her attempts to carve out a personal and human space:

Instead of these thoughts we're constantly mulling over, it would be better to have the actual things inside your head, so you could reach in and touch them.  People you want, or people you want to be rid of.  Objects you've held on to or lost.  There would be an order to things in my head: in the center would be Paul, but not clutching at him and running away from him and loving him all at the same time.  The sidewalks would run along my temples, as far as they like, and under my cheeks might be the shops with their glass display cases, though not my pointless destinations in the city.  Of course there's no escaping Albu's lackey, who's probably sitting out there in that red car to give me my summons--not deliver, it's never in writing, so that I'm always left to worry whether Paul or I might have misheard the date.  Albu's lackey would be lurking somewhere in the back of my head...

You can see how the narrator is half-resigned to her place in the world; she doesn't seek to banish Albu's lackey, only shuffle him around in the order of things.

The Appointment leaps dizzyingly from the present tram ride to a number of points in the narrator's past, chopped up and reshuffled so that the timeline is difficult to keep straight.  (Maybe this mental reshuffling, too, is an attempt to impose a personal order on a proscribed one?)  But each memory is wonderfully and uniquely realized, and together they form a rich picture of life: The narrator's marriage to Paul, who sells illegal television aerials that reach Western stations.  Her previous marriage to the son of a Communist operative who once lorded over her hometown and its bitter dissolution.  Her young, beautiful friend Lilli, shot dead trying to cross the border with an older soldier she had fallen in love with.

The Appointment, in fact, is full of relationships, prurient and not, between younger women and older men.  Muller makes the Electral connotations of this explicit by having her narrator remember walking in on her father with a girl her own age:

I'm better than that girl with her braid, I thought, why doesn't Papa take me.  She's dirty, her hands are green from all the vegetables.  What does he want with her, she has a good husband.

Lilli begins with her father-in-law, the first in a long string of older men who eventually lead her to a premature grave; the narrator recounts being hit on by her father-in-law, the Communist operative in addition to wishing to take the place of her father's lover.  Albu, with his unwelcome kiss of the hand at each appointment, is a kind of father, too.  Are we meant to read the state as a kind of father figure, demanding sexual satisfaction, prying abhorrently into places that ought to be closed to it?  And--SPOILER ALERT--what are we to make of the end?  In the present, the narrator misses her stop on the tram and is made late for her appointment.  But before she can make it, she sees her husband Paul with an older man she does not know:

Quite by accident, just out of boredom, the old man glances at the bush and bends down to Paul's ear.  Now Paul stands up and sees me.  Why is he buttoning up his shirt.

What am I supposed to make of this?  Is Muller suggesting a homosexual relationship between Paul and the old man, or is that reading too much into it?  Is her ambiguity incredibly bold or am I incredibly dense?  If that's the implication, is it a chilling notification that authority, personified in the watchful old man, pries even into those places you expect it least?

Other reviews of The Appointment:

The Ardent Reader
Erin Reads
Tim Gebhart at Blogcritics