No one quite captures the alienation of the dispossessed like Herta Müller. The Romanian-born German Nobel Laureate delves deeply into the subconscious of people suffering from the emotional and political ramifications of living life under a communist dictatorship and gives us characters whose only hope is to find a way out. Having lived through the Ceausescu dictatorship, Müller’s ability to convey the confining limits of village life under Communism is unique and unparalleled. The Passport is a shuddersome and compelling work comprised of image-laden depictions of the repressed desolation and understated anguish of the town’s inhabitants. The central protagonist, Windisch, is the town miller who wants nothing more than to escape to West Berlin with his wife and grown daughter.
Through the short, nonlinear stories, or more aptly, histories, Müller infuses the narrative with symbolism, dream sequences and superstitions. The apple tree, used as a fear-inducing specter, could represent the Communist regime devouring the freedoms of those who live by its rule:
In the morning night watchman didn’t lie down to sleep. He went to the village mayor. He told him that the apple tree behind the church ate its own apples. The mayor laughed. The night watchman could hear fear behind the laughter. Little hammers of life were beating in the mayor’s head.
This is the typical eerie passage from Müller. As her terse and poetic style provides a haunting rhythm and distance, the dour reality of town life coupled with the characters’ desires to become part of the West sets an ominous tone the builds as the novel progresses. Nature itself is portrayed as a character, and its different elements make repeated appearances that are both fanciful and surreal:
“The owls have no peace, and the water has no peace,” says Windisch. “If it dies, another owl will come to the village. A stupid young owl that doesn’t know anything. It will sit on anyone’s roof.”
The night watchman looks up at the moon. “The young people will die again,” he says. Windisch sees that the air just in front of him belongs to the night watchman. His voice manages a tired sentence “Then it will be like war again,” he says.
Throughout the novel, Windisch is a sad and anxious character. A miller without money or much else searches to obtain passports from a local for himself and his family. Unable to achieve this, he endures a bleak existence not only without respect from his wife, but also resigned to her bouts of vitriol. Their freedom rests on their daughter’s sexual favors with the village militiaman and priest. This knowledge, as horrific as it is, seems like the only way out of their plodding existence that is surrounded by death and time.
Müller allows the reader no sense of redemption, constructing the same hopelessness created by a totalitarian government. Our Windisch rides through the town on his bicycle and through his eyes, everyday objects morph into phantoms that disturbs the reader. Müller is a master of a direct and breviloquent prose that heightens the harsh realities of Windisch’s life and the lives of all those imprisoned by Communist rule in Romania. Perhaps not her best work, but a startling novella that limns a world of heartbreak and obsession and the tragedy of desperation it can create.