The time from the other room beats waves

The PassportThe Passport
by Herta Müller
translated from German by Martin Chalmers

I bought this book in Berlin a couple of years ago, attracted by the cover line “Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature”. And the owl on the cover, if I’m being honest. I had no idea what the book was about, when it was written or who Müller was.

Having read the book, I am surprised to discover that it’s set in Romania, not Germany, and it’s about events that happened in my lifetime, under a dictator I had heard of but did not know the full extent of his awfulness. (The Berlin connection is that Müller fled from Romania to Berlin and she has lived there since 1987.)

This is the story of a village in a minority German-speaking corner of Romania in the 1980s. Ceaușescu’s regime is increasingly oppressive, and this minority in particular are being killed – or to call it by its true name, ethnically cleansed. Most people in the village are trying to get out, and they will all do whatever it takes to get that precious passport. The main character, Windisch, a miller, is bribing the mayor with sacks of flour, but he knows what all the officials really want and he is trying to resist. He talks unkindly of how his fellow villagers managed to obtain their passports, but it is inevitable that he will have to follow in their footsteps.

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The torment was strange, it was all in her mind

brooklynBrooklyn
by Colm Tóibín

This is a lovely book, though I do have reservations. Eilis lives with her older sister Rose and their mother in 1950s Enniscorthy, an Irish town in which job opportunities are scarce. Their brothers have already moved to England to work. Rose has a steady job but Eilis, despite having a bookkeeping qualification, doesn’t, so when a priest offers to arrange a job and accommodation for her in Brooklyn it seems like there’s no choice but to agree.

Eilis is enigmatic – she lets life happen to her, lets others make decisions for her, but she doesn’t lack ambition or opinions of her own. At times she seems ineffectual or indecisive, at others strong and brave. I suppose she is young enough (20 or so?) that she’s still learning who she is and what she believes, even what she really feels. She’s had to grow up very suddenly, thrust from a protective home in a small town to a boarding house in one the world’s largest cities, and the decisions she is faced with are very different now. The social stigmas and etiquette are different, and yet in some ways the same – there’s snobbery and elitism everywhere, but Brooklyn has the addition of racial tensions.

Tóibín manages to explore a lot in not that many pages here – separation from family and ties to our childhood home, love and romance, migration and loneliness, the changing social position of women and job opportunities available to them – but it doesn’t in any way feel like an “issues” book. It’s a snapshot of a time and place that felt very real to me, but most of all I was swept up in Eilis’s story. One word of warning, though: do not read the blurb on the back cover – it reveals something from the last 20 pages of the book. Poor form, Penguin!

“It was like hell, she thought, because she could see no end to it, and to the feeling that came with it, but the torment was strange, it was all in her mind, it was like the arrival of night if you knew that you would never see anything in daylight again. She did not know what she was going to do.”

First published 2009 by Viking.

Source: Secondhand, not sure which bookshop.