Bleak is Nothing

The Passport by Herta Muller

I titled this review “Bleak is Nothing” because that overwrought adjective could be used to describe this novella, but shouldn’t.  This book does not describe a life that is bleak, it describes a life that is hopeless, futile.  The 2009 Nobel Prize winner’s plot is simple.  In a German village in Ceaucescu’s Romania after World War II the local miller, Windish, tries to obtain a passport for his family so that they may emigrate to West Germany.  Woven among vignettes describing life for Windisch and his wife both during and after the war, the reader learns that in order to obtain his passport Windisch must bribe the local militiaman and priest.  He foolishly attempts to offer free bags of flour but is inevitably forced to offer his daughter instead.  Windisch and family end up with their passports and leave the country.

Two primary themes emerge from this despairing novel.  First is the idea of sex.  Sex for the denizens of this village is not an experience for pleasure, or procreation for that matter.  The latter point is evidenced by Windisch’s daughter, Amalie’s easy access to birth control and Windisch’s wife, Katharine’s  hysterectomy.  Instead, sex is used as a means of barter, or leverage, for the women, and as a reprieve from daily suffering for the men.  A second theme is the notion of choice in the novel.  Due to the oppressive totalitarian regime, the characters in the book, as surely Ms. Muller was herself, are not given any freedoms, thus any choices.  The human psychological need for freedom and power is redirected and demonstrated via the characters’ views of sex, my first theme.

Amidst the dismal storyline is the internal moral struggle of the protagonist, Windisch.  Windisch fights the status quo until the bitter end, trying foolishly to bribe the militiaman and priest with flour to stave off the inevitable offering of his daughter.  Windisch takes out his anguish at this on his wife primarily, and his daughter at the end.  Throughout the book Windisch ridicules his wife for her method of survival during the war.  A powerful passage near the end of the novella demonstrates her offering of her body for food in order to withstand the brutal Russian winters.  Because she survives by essentially prostituting herself and his former lover, Barbara, dies, presumably not trading her body for food, Windisch is forced to reckon with his wife’s method’s effectiveness.  I believe it is because of this internal moral battle that Windisch is finally able to sacrifice his daughter and thus, emigrate from Romania.

This book is not for the average reader. Muller’s simple declarative sentences grow wearisome and the plot itself is nothing if not brutal.  However, a powerful experience is conveyed and it is for this reason that I will remember this book.

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