For anyone who has ever believed that socialism of any kind was or is a good thing, Herta Muller's The Land of Green Plums would be an eye-opening novel that might make you think otherwise. My father, who grew up under socialist Nazism and then communism, worked very hard to escape it. He was to the very end, a man who always decried it and saw it for what it really was. So, from the very get-go, I've had a natural dislike for ideologies embossed with socialist leanings, regardless if what is being espoused at the time is en vogue and the cause caleb for a sundry group of political neophytes. The Land of Green Plums, for me, as a reader, is an excellent literary conveyance of the true corrosive evils of any and all regimes which foster a "robust" government. When the individual will is ignored and the totality of people are thrust under the umbrella of a government/regime that thinks it knows better than the society at large, then the clarion call must be made.
In clear, direct and crystalline prose, Muller depicts the lives of four young students who live in the hinterlands of Nicolae Ceausescu's Romania. Hoping to cast off their provincial mind-set and old world limitations, they travel to the "cosmopolitan" city in the vain hopes of acquiring a liberty not known to them in the regions in which they left. In the city, they want to start afresh and create, mold and foster an identity that has possibility, excitement, independence, modernism and free will. But once in the city, the core students/characters: Kurt, Georg, Edgar and the nameless female protagonist who narrates the story-discover that it is not only in the backwoods of their homelands that are severely limited; the city is a mere reflection of their provinces. And they know that the source of the deadening pall which they are experiencing is flowing from their president: "Everyone's a villager here. Our heads may have left home, but our feet are just standing in a different village. No cities can grow in a dictatorship, because everything stays small when it's being watched." Page 44.
Under the dictatorship, as expressed by Muller, small achievements are not so small. They can not be large or the Securitate (the secret police) will get them. But when not caught, joy is supreme, and possibilities are endless: "We looked for things that would set us apart because we read books ...We imagined the land where the books came from a land of thinkers. We sniffed at the pages and caught ourselves sniffing our own hands out of habit. We were surprised our hands didn't blacken as we read, the way they did from the ink in the newspapers and books printed in our country." Pages 46-47. To be caught deviating from the governmental norm would bring possibilities of this nature: "When the farmers harvested their cornfields, they found withered or bloated corpses, picked over by crows. The farmers took the corn and left the corpses, because it was better not to see them. In the late autumn, the tractors ploughed them under." Page 61 "The rule of the bourgeoisie and the landowning class is long gone..." Page 80. Complete deprivation of one's livelihood will alter human behavior; first there will be envy that will fester and gnaw and then grow into action: "She only wore the floral-patterned dress one day. She had dresses from Greece and from France. Sweaters from England and jeans from America. She had powder, lipstick, and mascara from France, jewelry from Turkey. And whisper-thin nylons from Germany. The women in the offices didn't like Tereza. You could tell what they were thinking when they saw Tereza. They were thinking: All those things that Tereza has are worth fleeing for. They became envious and bitter." Page 108. But with materialism aside, there were even greater losses than that, like the Typewriter Decree, whereby typewriters had to be registered. So if anyone spoke out against the regime via the written word, the source could be located and the detractor appropriately made to disappear, which was not an infrequent occurrence. Bit by bit, due to a madman's ego, socialism would flesh itself out and destroy old Romania. Citizens had to sign warrants and pay for the bulldozing of their own homes, which would then be replaced by massive apartment buildings, the epitome of socialist living, according to Ceausescu and his cronies. People not in compliance, could be "...called up to Heaven at the drop of a hat..." Page 136.
The tragedy in The Land of Green Plums is that life is like a flat line or worse, only altered by the beck and call of those in power who pick favorites. Citizens are watched, and normal human action is repressed to such a degree that people are evolved into monsters, not by their own choice, but due to their lack of normal expression and development: "It was bleeding. I licked the blood off with my tongue, so it wouldn't run down my sleeve...They left me there wounded, they stood by the ditch and watched me bleed. They had eyes like thieves. I was afraid they lost their minds. The minute these people see blood, they gather to drink, to drink me dry...They make me sick with their blood guzzling...That they lure their kids into the slaughterhouse with dried cowtails and intoxicate them with kisses of blood. " Page 124. It is almost reminiscent of Vlaud Tepesh, Prince of Wallachia, the ruler and war hero who loved impaling his enemies and feasting upon bread and their blood. Also the inspiration behind Dracula. It's not a surprise that Nicolae Ceausescu resurrected him as an exemplar of Machiavellian perfection and terror.
But on the whole, the real essence of the book is expressed on pages 218-219: "When we lost our jobs, we realized that we were worse off without that reliable distress than when we were under its constraint. While we were failures in the eyes of the people around us whether we had work or not, we now became failures in our own eyes as well...We were broken, sick of the rumors about the dictator's imminent death, weary of people killed trying to flee. We were moving closer and closer to obsession with flight, without even noticing it. Failure was as normal to us as breathing." An overwhelming and intrusive government/regime will always bring failure, not matter how "positive" the intentions may be. Though it is not mellifluously written, it is jarring poetry nonetheless and an absolute must read!!