When Herta Müller won the Nobel Prize in 2009, I was rather ashamed to say I’d never heard of her, even though at that point I’d been working in a bookstore for two years. She immediately went onto my TBR list, and when I came across a copy of The Appointment at a recent library sale, I picked it up. I’m sure it would have languished on the shelf for a long time to come had not some fellow readers offered to read it with me! My version was translated by Michael Hulse and Philip Boehm.
The Appointment is narrated by a young woman, whose name, at about 80 pages in, I have yet to discover. (In fact, judging from the jacket flap’s summary, I’m not sure it’s ever revealed.) She lives in Communist Romania, works in a clothing factory, and is being repeatedly summoned by the secret police. What, precisely, she has done to attract their attention isn’t clear yet, though a few incidents have been eluded to.
The novel isn’t broken into chapters. Instead, the narration moves between the woman’s present, in which the bus she is on is slowly taking her to her ten o’clock appointment with the secret police, and her past, which she tells in a convoluted mixture of memories ranging from her childhood to the present day. She talks about her parents, her second husband Paul, her first husband, and her friend Lilli. She talks about her experiences with the secret police and the rituals she’s developed around the repeated summons.
I like the young woman who’s telling the story. She’s an interesting narrator, honest and reluctant at the same time with a touch of grim humor. For instance, one day she cracked and ate an old walnut on a morning she’d been summoned. Her appointment that day was shorter than usual, and a new ritual developed, as she explains:
“Ever since then I’ve believed in nuts, that nuts help. I don’t really believe it, but I want to have done whatever I can that might help. That’s why I stick to my stone for cracking nuts, and always do it in the morning. Once the nut’s been cracked, it loses its power if it lies open overnight. Of course it would be easier on Paul and the neighbors–not to mention myself–if I split them open in the evening, but I can’t have people telling me what time to crack nuts.” (p. 17)
I get that–kind of believing in a superstition or ritual, but not really believing, but not wanting to change what you do, just in case it messes everything up. I also really like the woman’s observations about the people around her when she’s riding the bus. She describes an older man, then a younger man with a little boy as well as the bus driver, in ways that reveal not only their appearances, but the kinds of people they might be underneath.. She has a keen eye for observation.
Her memories, on the other hand, have been a little harder to piece together. It’s clear when she talks about her childhood, but the rest of the time it can be difficult for me to determine what happened when. I wonder if it’s one of those novels where all of a sudden, at a certain point, everything makes sense. I do have another 130 pages to go, so it’s possible that’s the case. I hope so!
Müller herself lived in Communist Romania under Ceauşescu’s regime as part of the country’s German minority, and I wonder how many of the narrator of The Appointment‘s experiences and impressions are Müller’s own.
If you’re reading The Appointment, how’s it going for you? If not, have you ever read anything by Herta Müller?