Tuesday, November 29, 2011

'Nachgeborenen': Those who Came After: Herta Muller's Green Plums

We laughed a lot, to hide it from each other. But fear always finds an out. If you control your face, it slips into your voice. If you manage to keep a grip on your face and your voice, as if they were dead wood, it will slip out through your fingers. It will pass through your skin and lie there. You can see it lying around on objects close by.

First published in 1949, George Orwell's iconic 1984, is a study of a dystopic future where the State has penetrated deep into the life of the citizens and where fear and suspicion rules each and every relationship. Reading Nobel-prize winner Herta Muller 1993 novel The Land of Green Plums is like revisiting 1984. Only this time, the novel is not a product of the writer's imagination but rather based on everyday experiences in Romania under the dictatorship of Nicole Ceausescu.

The story narrated by an unnamed young woman is about four young people - Edgar, Kurt, Georg, and the narrator herself - who come together after a young woman called Lola commits suicide (or is it murder?) in the hostel where she is a roommate of the narrator. All four come from similar families. They all belong to the German-speaking Minority in Romania, their fathers are former S.S. Men who fought for (and still sing songs in praise of) Hitler, and whose mothers are long-suffering, hard-working women.

The four young people, eager to free themselves from the all-suffocating/ all-pervasive presence of the State  indulge in minor subversive activities - reading and collecting books that are banned, composing poems that talk of toppling dictatorships. Their deepest desire is to not turn into a puppet of the State, wearing fear like a second skin:

The gym instructor was the first to raise his hand. All the other hands flew up after his. While raising their hands, everybody looked at the raised hands of the others. If someone's own hand wasn't as high as the others', he would stretch his arms a little farther. People kept their hands up until their fingers grew tired and started to droop and their elbows began to feel heavy and pull downward. Everyone looked around, and since no one else's arm was lowered, they straightened their fingers again and extended their elbows. Sweat stains showed under the arms; shirts and blouses came untucked. Necks were stretched, ears turned red, lips parted and stayed half-open. Heads kept still, while eyes slid from side to side.

Freedom, however, as they realise eventually can only be gained through two ways: the passport...

But the letters exchanged between the narrator and her mother show that it is not so easy to sever ties:

They have good streets here, but everything's so spread out. I am not used to asphalt, it makes my feet hurt, and my brain. I get as tired here in a day as I do back home in a year.

That's not home, other people live there now, I wrote to Mother. Home is where you are now...

And Mother wrote back to me: How would you know where home is? the place where Toni the clockmaker tends the graves, that's home.

or the slashed wrist/ broken neck/ splattered body...

It is a chilling realisation.

The book does not allow easy access but stick with it. It made me thankful for the little space that is my own.

Incidentally, can anyone tell me the meaning of the original title: Herztier?


First Line: When we don't speak, said Edgar, we become
                  unbearable, and when we do, we make fools of 

Title: The Land of Green Plums

Author: Herta Muller

Translator: Michael Hofmann

Original Language: German

Original Title: Herztier

Publication Details: London: Granta Books, 1999

First Published: 1993

Pages: 242


The Land of Green Plums can be purchased on the Net. I borrowed it from the College Library. [833 M 9132]


Book(s) with similar theme(s)


The Handmaid's Tale


Read and reviewed as part of the German Literature Month hosted by Caroline and Lizzy.

Submitted for the following challenges:

Borrowed Book

Haunted by Ghosts: Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck

...but with each step you take while fleeing, your baggage grows less and less, with more and more left behind, and sooner or later you just stop and sit there, and then all that is left of life is life itself, and everything else is lying in all the ditches beside all the roads in a land as enormous as the air, and surely here as well you can find those dandelions, these larks.

"No poetry after Auschwitz, " Adorno had declared famously. At the same time however, great tragedy has often created sublime art. Thus, it is no wonder that the most moving passages in the book Visitation are those reflecting the thoughts of a young Jewish girl, Doris, hidden in a cupboard by her mother and waiting for her return. As the wait grows longer and darkness spreads, little Doris' (she is all of twelve) thoughts get frantic. And then, just before she is shot, because she is considered an inconvenience that might interfere with things running smoothly,  Doris recalls a beautiful moment of love and laughter:

Nothing is nicer than diving with your eyes open. Diving down as far as the shimmering legs of your mother and father who have just come back from swimming and now are wading to shore through the shallow water. Nothing more fun than to tickle them and to hear, muffled by the water, how they shriek because they know it will make their child happy.

Midway through the book, this chapter titled The Girl was so heart wrenching that I felt suffocated and had to close the book, take a few deep breaths, walk round the room, swallow past the lump in my throat, and only then could I open the book once again.

Through the history of a house built near a lake, the author Jenny Erpenbeck presents the history of Germany in a microcosm. The story proper begins in a fairy tale manner and ends in a technical description of demolition, effectively demonstrating the nightmarish descent of Germany from a land of fairy tales to a land of destruction and devastation. Beginning somewhere at the fag end of the 19th Century, the house  (or the woods where the house is built) sees a succession of owners, tenants, workers, neighbours that make the novel meander through the first world war, the rise of Nazism, the second world war, the march of the Red army, the division and the reunification. Stories and characters are repeated. One doesn't quite know at times which character is being talked about. While the human landscape changes, the natural landscape, the lake remains as it was at the beginning of its creation, reflecting the follies of mankind.

Not surprisingly, the novel deals with setting up roots and uprooting, often violent and forced. Thus, characters ponder on the sense of what can be called home.

Home! he'd cried out like a child that would give anything not to be seeing what it was seeing, but precisely in this one brief moment in which he hid his face in his hands, as it were, even the dutiful German official had known that home would never again be called Bavaria, the Baltic coast or Berlin, home had been transformed into a time that now lay behind him, Germany had been irrevocably transformed into something disembodied, a lost spirit that neither knew nor was forced to imagine all these horrific things. H-o-m-e. Which thou must leave ere long. After he had swum his way through a brief bout of despair, the German official had applied to retain his post. those others, though, the ones who had fled their homeland before they themselves could be transformed into monsters, were thrust into homelessness by the news that reached them from back home, not just for the years of their emigration but also, as seems clear to her now, for all eternity, regardless of whether or not they returned.

Questions are also posed as to one's sense of belonging. As you are stripped of your belongings, do you lose your privilege of belonging?

Everything had kept getting less, they'd had to leave behind more and more baggage, or else it was taken from them, as though they were now too weak to carry all those things that are part of life, as though someone were trying to force them into old age by relieving them of all this.

Alongside though there is also an affirmation of the human spirit, that can endure and survive, and finally emerge a winner:

Which means that in the end there are certain things you can take with you when you flee, things that have no weight, such as music.

The book is not lenghty but extremely dense. At times, I found the going tough and wished that the writer had adopted a more easy (read conventional) way of conveying things, and the epilogue seemed heavy-handed but there are certain sections which will haunt you for ever. One of these days, I'll like to read the book -at a much slower pace - again.


First Line: Approximately Twenty-Four Thousand Years ago, a
                 glacier advanced until it reached a large outcropping of 
                 rock that is nothing more than a gentle hill above where 
                 the house stands.

Title: Visitation

Author: Jenny Erpenbeck

Translator: Susan Bernofsky

Original Language: German

Original Title: Heimsuchung

Publication Details: London: Portobello Books, 2010

First Published: 2008

Pages: 150


Visitation is available on the Net. I was lucky enough to win it as a giveaway during the German Literature Month.


Book(s) with similar theme(s)

Train to Pakistan (with photographs by Margaret Bourke-White)


Read and Reviewed as part of German Literature Month hosted by  Caroline and Lizzy.

Submitted for the following Challenges:


Off the Shelf

Friday, November 25, 2011

Book Most Thankful For

On this Thanksgiving Weekend, Jenn at Jenn's Bookshelves has posed the question as to which book one is most thankful for.

The Mahabharat is my all-time favourite book. Passion, Romance, Friendship, Courage, Chivalry, Envy, Arrogance, Cowardice, Sacrifice, Suffering...: It contains the kernels of all the literary plots of the world. However, most translations don't do justice to this Sanskrit epic, turning the charcaters one-dimensional and presenting the story as a simplistic one of the victory of good over evil.

Kamala Subramaniam's translation is a notable exception that presents the grandeur of the epic in its varied hues and brings out the inherent tragedy of this magnum-opus. I still remember the thrill when I picked it up from the shelf of my school library and the nights spent narrating the text to my (sleepy!) sister.

Thankfully Reading Weekend: The Beginning

I am participating in Thankfully Reading Weekend hosted by Jenn's Bookshelves. Well, to start with I finished Jeremy Erpenbeck's Visitation and have moved on to Herta Muller's The Land of Green Plums. Both are not easy reads, so I am very happy that I have finished one (review up soon) and am (almost) halfway thru the second one.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

'The Issue itself": Present Day Germany and the Nazi Past in The Reader

Sometime I think that dealing with the Nazi past was not the reason for the generational conflict that drove the student movement, but merely the form it took. Parental expectations, from which every generation must free itself, were nullified by the fact that these parents had failed to measure up during the Third Reich, or after it ended. How could those who had committed Nazi crimes or watched them happen or looked away while they were happening or tolerated the criminals among them after 1945 or even accepted them - how could they have anything to say to their children? But on the other hand, the Nazi past was an issue even for children who couldn't accuse their parents of anything, or didn't want to. For them coming to grips with the Nazi past was not merely the form taken by a generational conflict, it was the issue itself.

How does one accept the fact that one's loved ones may have committed grievous wrongs? How do you react when the woman whom you have loved comes in front of you as a monster? How does one move on when one has inherited a history of sin and guilt?

If this review has begun with questions, it is because Bernhard Schlink's novel The Reader poses one question after another for the reader. Schlink's dwells into an area very few writers have sought to explore: The Nazi past of Germany. Writers tend to avoid such uncomfortable issues, issues which may bring up the past in all its ugly details. But Schlink poses the questions regarding those years of Germany, when, fed on the rhetoric of the Master Race and Aryan Supremacy, ordinary Germans either applauded or turned a blind eye to the things happening to their Jewish neighbours and friends.

The story is about a young boy Michael Berg who has an intense love affair with an older woman, Hanna Schmitz, during his teenage years. Their love making is interspersed with discussions of books that Michael reads out to Hanna. The woman is a mystery and Berg always has the feeling that she doesn't reveal everything to him. Then one fine day Hanna disappears. Young Berg grows up - and as a law student is attending a case against former Nazis - only to recognise Hanna in that line-up of criminals. Her crimes are horrific and Berg is caught between the memories of the woman whom he had loved and the reality of the woman who now stands before him as an accused.

As the case progresses, Berg realises that the answers that he wants from Hanna, in fact, from his country itself, can never be a simplistic Yes/ No kind of thing. In one of the most perceptive passages of the entire book, Hanna counter-questions the judge who asked her why she had committed certain acts. Hanna is bewildered because she saw herself as just carrying out certain orders.

"I ...I mean...so what would you have done?" Hanna meant it as a serious question....

"There are matters one simply cannot get drawn into, that one must distance oneself from, if the price is not life and limb."

Perhaps this would have been all right if he had said the same thing, but referred directly to Hanna or himself. Talking about 'one' must and must not at and what it costs did not do justice to the seriousness of Hanna's question. She had wanted to know what she should have done in her particular situation, not that there are things that are not done. The judge's answer came across as helpless and pathetic. Everyone felt it. They reacted with sighs of disappointment and stared in amazement at Hanna, who had more or less won the exchange.

The book thus provides no answers as such. There is just a quest for answers and an attempt to understand the past. If Hanna represents Germany which failed to 'read' the signs than is her ultimate fate the only way forward for the new generation? As Michael says at one point: 

I wanted simultaneously to understand Hanna's crime and to condemn it. But it was too terrible for that. When I tried to understand it, I had the feeling I was failing to condemn it as it must be condemned. When I condemned it as it must be condemned, there was no room for understanding. But even as I wanted to understand Hanna, failing to understand her meant betraying her all over again. I could not resolve this. I wanted to pose myself both tasks - understanding and condemnation. but it was impossible to do both.

Besides these issues of moral dilemma, there is also sheer poetry in certain passages. Sample this poignant reflection:

But there was so much energy in me, such belief that one day I'd be handsome and clever and superior and admired, such anticipation when I met new people and new situations. Is that what makes me sad? the eagerness and belief that filled me then and exacted a pledge from life that life could never fulfill? Sometimes I see the same eagerness and belief in the faces of children and teenagers and the sight brings back the same sadness I feel in remembering myself. Is this what sadness is all about? Is it what comes over us when beautiful memories shatter in hindsight because the remembered happiness fed not just on actual circumstances but on a promise that was not kept.

The book is not an easy or quick read. There are many instances that will make you take a pause and ponder over your own responses to certain issues. This was the aspect of the novel that I enjoyed the most and the one that made me overlook what I don't enjoy reading: descriptions of an underage youngster involved in a torrid love affair with a mature adult. It might have been necessary for the plot but certain descriptive scenes were uncalled for.

First Line: When I was fifteen, I got Hepatitis.

Title: The Reader

Author: Bernhard Schlink

Original Title: Der Vorleser

Original Language: German

Translator: Carol Brown Janeway

Publication Details: London: Phoenix, 2008

First Published: 1995

Pages: 216

Trivia: The book was made into a movie in 2008 and was much in 
             the news for the lead actress, Kate Winslet, winning a 
             number of awards for her portrayal of Hanna.


The book is available on the net. I borrowed it from Delhi Public Library, Vinoba Puri. [N SCH]


Books with similar theme(s):

The Book Thief

The Night in Lisbon


Read and Reviewed as part of the German Literature Month.

Submitted for the following Challenges.

Borrowed Book
Mystery and Suspense

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Reading Challenge

What am I doing signing up for another challenge when I haven't even finished a single one? Well, this challenge is for people like me who do things at the last hour. All you have to do is to read, read, and read in the month of December so that you start with a (comparatively) small pile in the New Year. There will be weekly check-ins and a giveaway too.

Hosted by Loving Books, you can click here for more details:

Sunday 4th December 2011

Well time to take a stock of the year and plan for the month of December.

Signed up for 7 (besides this one) challenges. Haven't completed any so far though some are on the verge of completion.

A-Z: Have read and reviewed 12 out of a total of 26. Read a few others but have to review them. Letters left are: C, E, F,G, H, J, K, O, Q, S, U, W, Y, Z. 14 books in one month. Seems like a tall order.

Birth Year: To read 2 books. Will do it this month.

Borrowed Book: Have read 8 out of 12. Since I am reading a few books borrowed from libraries, this challenge I definitely hope to complete.

Dewey Decimel: The goal was simple. To read 1 non-fiction book. Haven't done it so far. Hope to do it before the year ends.

Mystery and Suspense: Have read and reviewed 6 out of a total of 12. But have read a couple which I need to review, so will be able to finish it.

Off the Shelf: Have read only 2 out of 15. Again seems like a tall order.

Vintage Mystery: 1 book left. Will finish this first.


Selected list of books that have to be read/ reviewed:

1. The Wheel Spins
2. Survivor
3. Freedom Struggle in Indian English Novels
4. The Weavers
5. Oh Shit Not Again!
6. Zero Percentile
7. The American Boy
8. The Yellow Rose and other Stories
9. The Daughter-in-Law.
10. The Sonnet Lover.

Quite a lot to do. So let me go back to the books.

Thankfully Reading Weekend

Jenn at jennsbookshelves is hosting a thankfully-reading-weekend that starts on Nov. 25th. There are no rules as such, just an 'obscene amount of reading.' Since I've to read quite a few books before November ends, I thought it would be fun to have some cheering and encouragement. There are also mini-challenges and giveaways. For more details, go here:


Friday, November 18, 2011

Growing Up (with books) in Nazi Germany: The Book Thief

The stars set fire to my eyes...

Usually I avoid reading books set in Nazi Germany because in the guise of Nazi bashing there is a blanket basterdization of ordinary Germans - people caught on the wrong foot in the march of history.

It was with this trepidation that I started The Book Thief. Had heard a lot about it - it being hailed as a modern classic - and it had even featured on my wishlist. The beginning was strange. The narrative voice was stranger. And it took me some time to gain entry into the book. Perhaps, it was some 100 pages down the book that I warmed up to it. From then on, however, it was a terrific ride - often heartrending and leaving me teary eyed.

The book - a bildungsroman - tells the story of a young German girl Liesel Meminger, the eponymous thief of the title and her life in the house of her foster parents the Hubermanns at Himmel Street - one of the poorer sections of the town of Molching, a suburb of Munich.

Growing up in Nazi Germany means that everything is secondary to the Party. One cannot even have the freedom to have different thoughts! How can anyone grow in such suffocating circumstances? But Liesel does, along with her close friend Rudy Steiner and the other kids of the street. Life is certainly not a bed of roses but it has laughter and sharing and happiness and thievery. Mostly of books but at times of food items.

Politics enters the household in the form of a dispute between the father and the son and the appearance of a Jew - Max Vandenburg- whom the family hides. It is a nightmarish existence for the young man hiding behind paint tins in a cold basement. And in one of the most moving lines of the book, he looks at the stars after a period of two years:

From a Himmel Street window, he wrote, the stars set fire to my eyes.

The line reinforced with tragic intensity the suicidal march of a country.

As the novel progressed, the narrative voice started making sense. It is disjointed and  it is fragmentary because life is like that. It isn't easy, smooth sailing. In fact, it's a brilliant trope employed by the author.

Stick with the book. It will take time but it will be rewarding.


Opening lines: First the colours. Then the humans. That's usually how I see things. Or at least how I try.

Title: The Book Thief

Author: Markus Zusak

Publication Details: London: Black Swan, 2007

First Published: 2005

Pages: 554

Other books with similar theme:

Two LivesBuy Two Lives

Baumgartner's Bombay


Here's a link to another review of the book (by Deborah):



The book is easily available in book stores and on the Net, I borrowed it from Delhi Public Library, opposite Old Delhi Railway Station. [N ZAS]


Submitted for the following:

Borrowed Book Challenge

November Book Giveaway

Saturday, November 5, 2011

On My Wishlist

On My Wishlist is a fun meme hosted by BookChickCity in which one writes about the book(s) one is really keen to read.


Today on my wishlist is W.G. Sebald's On the Natural History of Destruction which discusses both the devastation of Germany during the Second World War as also the silence that envelopes it. I got to know of this book thru Caroline's wonderful review of it as part of the German Reading Challenge in which I am participating. You can find the review over here:

To see what others are wishing for, go here: