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The Passport (Masks)

A book by Herta Müller

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The "Unpainted Pictures" ...

  • Dec 8, 2009
Rating:
+5
... hundreds of small watercolors by the German Expressionist Emil Nolde, fill a small museum of their own in Berlin, near the Gendarmes' Market in the former East sector. Nolde was himself an anti-Semite and Nazi supporter in the 1920s, but because his paintings were classed by Hitler as "decadent art', he was ordered to refrain from painting of any sort during the years of World War 2. He disobeyed, hiding his watercolors successfully until the end of the war, painting daily in his remote home on the seacoast. Nolde's vision was a dark, tormented one, based on Germanic lore and the gloomy countryside he loved to roam. Whatever his politics, he was a great expressive painter.

The fragmented prose-poem chapters of Herta Müller's novella "Der Mensch ist ein grosser Fasan auf der Welt" (A Man is Just a Pheasant in the World, feebly re-titled 'The Passport' in English) remind me very strongly of Nolde's "Unpainted Pictures", or of any of the garishly colored, angular paintings of the "Brücke" school, by Erich Heckel, Max Pechstein, Ernst Kirchner, or Otto Müller. Herta Müller, born in the German-speaking Banat Province of Romania, was unquestionably not related to the painter Otto, but her narrative structures in this book are vividly pictorial, with eye-popping colors splashed on every page, white and primary red especially, and with descriptions of setting framing every occurrence. The dialogue in this book is as jagged and irrational as any Expressionist depiction of nudes in a studio or drinkers in a bar. There's something coarse and brutal about nearly every character in The Passport, as there is in the Berlin Street-Scenes painted by Ernst Kirchner or Max Beckmann. A smile in such a portrait automatically becomes a leer. Stated briefly, this short book is a beautifully-written portrayal of ugliness. And like an Expressionist painting, it can only be grasped emotionally, not rationally.

Windisch, the village miller, desperately wants 'papers' that will allow him to emigrate with his wife and grown-up daughter. Since he is an ethnic German, the Romanians want nothing better than to get rid of him and his ilk, but nothing can be done so reasonably in Ceausescu's police state. Every scrap of real of symbolic worth has to be extorted first, every degradation inflicted. Any would-be emigrant's wife has to 'search' for his birth certificate in the village priest's iron bed, and for his passport under the sheets of the militiaman's cot. Windisch is stubborn about his daughter's honor...

Yes, there is a story told in the ninety pages of this novella, but it takes an intuitive reader to unravel it. Müller's style here is far more allusive, symbolic, obscure than in the longer novel, "The Appointment", which I reviewed last week. I wouldn't rush to recommend The Passport as a first exposure to the 2009 Nobel Prize winner's work. Nevertheless, it's a masterpiece of the evocation of psychological anguish through mere words on a page.

The German title, by the way, is never explicated in English. It's a phrase spoken in disgust by a secondary character in the first chapter and repeated once by Windisch in despair in a chapter near the end. Is it a folk-saying of Romanian Germans? Possibly, but I take it as purely non-linear expressionism. Much of the novella has to be taken like that.

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More The Passport (Masks) reviews
review by . May 06, 2013
A grim and ponderous depiction of Romanian life under the scary dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu.
The Passport is a novella consisting of only 93 pages with the primary focus being on the Banat region of Romania and the Swabians in particular, the German speaking minority residents who occupy that territory in Romania. They are a people like the Armenians, who suffer incessantly and are folks who always get the raw end of the deal, historically speaking and otherwise. The story revolves around Windisch, the village miller, his wife as well as his virginal daughter Amalie, a school teacher. …
review by . June 25, 2010
The Passport is a novella consisting of only 93 pages with the primary focus being on the Banat region of Romania and the Swabians in particular, the German speaking minority residents who occupy that territory in Romania. They are a people like the Armenians, who suffer incessantly and are folks who always get the raw end of the deal, historically speaking and otherwise. The story revolves around Windisch, the village miller, his wife as well as his virginal daughter Amalie, a school teacher. Surrounding …
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This English-language debut by a Romanian-born West Berliner is remarkable for its stylistic purity. Muller's angry tale of an ethnic German anxious to emigrate from his stultifying Romanian village is relayed in deceptively straightforward sentences ("Katharina had sold her winter coat for ten slices of bread. Her stomach was a hedgehog. Every day Katharina picked a bunch of grass. The grass soup was warm and good") that pile up in striking patterns (later, "the second snow came. . . . The hedgehog stabbed"). Intently focused prose animates the parochial town with its corrupt power brokers, gamey folk songs and a tree reputed to have eaten its own apples, as well as the problematic relations among the central character, his embittered wife and their nubile daughter, who, like her mother before her during the war, is forced to grant sexual favors to men of privilege.
Copyright 1989 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Details

ISBN-10: 1852421398
ISBN-13: 978-1852421397
Author: Herta Müller
Publisher: Serpent's Tail

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