I’d not intended to read this book. When Herta Müller won the Nobel Prize for literature last year, I shrugged and went on with my life. My mother picked this up, found it dull, and passed it on to me without much encouragement.
This book was strong on neither plot nor character and yet it was a marvelous book.
The plot is straight-forward: Romania under dictatorship, its citizens making themselves into “tin sheep” and calling it “metallurgy,” working then drinking in bodegas like “refugees from a meaningless afternoon.”
The characters weren’t much fuller than stick figures sent out to do their various jobs like the paper chickens on the protaganist’s puppet board, which she calls the “chicken torture.”
Yet the book was striking because of the writing. So often a sentence or sequence morphed into a strange birth. You’re reading and suddenly something remarkable happens.
“On my way home I was carrying a nutria fur cap in my hand and a whole sunset on my head.” (p. 184)
“Mother didn’t put down her knife while eating, even though everything had already been cut into bite-sized pieces. She needed it to speak with.” (p. 142)
“In the factory I was translating instructions for hydraulic machinery. For me, the machines were one big dictionary.” (p. 106)
The book isn’t meant to be funny and yet at times the absurdity of it is funny. For example, there’s Captain Pjele the interrogator and his dog, also named Pjele. It’s weird and the tension of that weirdness makes it scary and hilarious.
I must claim enormous ignorance on the political background of this story, of Müller’s own story, but while it’s understated or expressed absurdly the oppression is quite clear. You don’t feel it’s something that can be escaped even when someone escapes the country.
If you are interested in surreal prose, you'll love this. If you need fleshed-out characters and twisty plots, it's not for you.