Title: The Appointment
Author: Herta Müller (translated by Michael Hulse & Philip Boehm)
Publisher: Portobello Books
Publication date: 2010
Paperback: 214 pages
Why did I choose to read this book? I noticed the unique front cover (it looks like it’s made of cardboard) when browsing in Foyles bookstore on the South Bank. Then after reading the blurb on the back it was ridiculous to think I could walk out without purchasing it.
Where to read this book: On a journey, preferably a train journey when you’re on your own and you can read whilst at the same time people watch and observe all walks of life roaming around you.
Refreshments: This was a strange one. The subject and the chilling nature of the story doesn’t really prompt one to reach for the biscuit tin however, a cup of tea would probably help.
The Appointment is a clever and chilling monologue told from the voice of a young Romanian, clothing-factory worker during the period of Ceausescu’s* totalitarian regime. She has been summoned at 10am sharp and it’s not the first time. Her crime? Sewing notes into the linings of men’s suits bound for Italy begging the question, ‘Marry me’, with her name and address. As she rides the tram towards her interrogation the story circumnavigates throughout her life and how she ended up in her situation. There’s her best-friend Lilli, shot while trying to flee to Hungary; her violent first husband, Major Albu, her interrogator, who begins each session with a painful wet kiss on her fingers and Paul, a woeful alcoholic but her lover and the one person she can trust. In her distraction and due to the unpredicatability of her fellow passengers, she misses her stop and finds herself on an unfamiliar street. It is here the fear of the appointment is put into perspective as she realises how endless the oppression is of the Ceausecu regime.
Strangely as I am just about to write this review I’ve only just realised I don’t think you’re ever given our narrator’s name, which is, I can only presume, a conscious decision of Müller and one that puts the totalitarian Communist regime into even more of a chilling perspective.
The style of writing that Müller adopts, and by this I mean the detailed descriptive passages, provide you with an exceptionally visual experience whilst reading. The exact detailing of our narrator’s superstitiouns and resultant habits that she carries out before each ‘appointment’ is an education in fear. Similarly the frequent return to the event of Albu’s kiss, “Paul and I have rehearsed the kiss…I learned not to crook my hands…the knuckles can block his gums… then the pain at my fingernails and slobber on my hand aren’t so humiliating.”
This is a novel that takes you on a fractured journey, instigated by the tram ride, jumping between memories and time without any clear distinction or indiction of where you’ll end up next. Throughout the novel she remembers her father’s indiscretions with a person Müller calls “the woman with the braid” and how she wished to take that woman’s place, she remembers her own indiscretions with Nelu, the garment factory supervisor, how she met Paul, at a flea market where she sold the wedding ring her first husband had given her, her former father-in-law, a man she refers to as “the Perfumed Commissar.” The list is endless and with each piece of shrapnel taken from her fractured memory a beautifully woven and rather harrowing story is created
It’s refreshing that this story doesn’t shy away from unpleasantness, this might be quite obvious from the subject matter, however, Müller throws out unexpectedly frank statements and ideas that are often shocking. The idea I found the most astute when describing living in this type of society was a rather unpleasant public toilet scene; “I could here the people outside…In here it was safe… not until I was back outside did I become a piece of human filth.” A second passage that was equally poignant for me was a conversation she has with her late father when talking about kissing a statue of Jesus, “They light up around your mouth when you die…you can enter paradise…and the kisses we give each other?… they don’t light up because they do go away.”
If you are a fan of stories with a clear plot, story line or even a real hero then this is definitely not for you – however the rest of you I can say with confidence will find it to be unnervingly brilliant.
Rating: 9 out of 10
* Nicolae Ceausescu was born on January 26, 1918. He met future Romanian leader Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej in prison, and succeeded him after his death in 1965. He ruled Romania according to orthodox Communist principles, causing food shortages by forcing the export of most of the country’s agricultural products. The resulting unrest led to the collapse of Ceausescu’s regime and his execution in 1989.