Herta Muller’s The Appointment (Picador, 1997) is a short novel told in the first person by a woman living in Ceausescu’s Romania. The narrator tells of her life, her history and her crime while riding the bus to her appointment with the police, an interrogator. The language is not so much stream of consciousness as a series of kaleidoscopic impressions moving in and out of focus. The narrator has been summoned to before and she knows that she is now woven into her interrogator’s evil and hatred. The book moves back and forth over time, slowly creating a picture of people living under horrific conditions with no real sense of humanity or hope.
Our narrator’s crime was to smuggle messages into men’s suits bound for Italy. She wanted a Marcello, writing to an imaginary Italian man to marry. It was not to come to pass. Instead, through the intrigue in her workplace she is discovered and faces an increasingly untenable life. Her actions, her words, her memories and her narrative are attempts to keep herself human and sane. It may not be possible. The language is carefully crafted and the writing is painful in its attempts to explain and provide meaning and sense. Meaning and sense are absent within the regime. There is no escape, no catharsis.
Literature like The Appointment is increasingly important, I believe, to keep us aware and alert to alternative narratives, alternative histories. One of the challenges in educating an entitled generation is their difficulty re-framing conceptions of self and agency. When we teach, it is often tempting to try to break through students world views and to make a connection through shock, or an emphasis on the horrific. I have done it, wading through the violence of World War II or Vietnam with students in an attempt to engage them with a different kind of reality. Sometimes it seems to make a difference. On reflection, though, I do not believe that I have been particularly effective at provoking their imagination to conceive of a different reality, one without justice or hope.
Muller’s book creates a different reality. So, too, do works like Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and some of the Soviet samizdat from the 1970s. Writing likes this gets under our skin and haunts our thoughts. It portrays a world that we don’t like, don’t want to live in, but is nevertheless frighteningly real. It is a literature that I very much admire – thoughtful, considered and powerful.