242 p. 1998
This was my selection for CAE bookgroup (aka “The Ladies Who Say Ooooh”) and within about three pages of opening it, I thought to myself: oh dear, The Ladies are not going to enjoy this book. It is a book of unrelieved bleakness.
The unnamed narrator is one of a small group of student dissidents in Ceausescu’s Romania. There is a nightmare-like dissonance and bestiality about this semi-autobiographical telling of their lives: people barter sex for offal; abattoir workers jostle to drink the animals’ blood; factory workers labour making tin cows. The title of the book alludes to the childhood warning given to the narrator that eating green plums would kill you, and yet the swaggering soldiers of Ceausescu’s regime stuff their pockets and saunter around with bulging cheeks full of green plums with impunity.
The friends write to each other in coded letters where certain phrases convey whether they are being interrogated or watched and each letter is sealed with a hair to alert that the letter may have been tampered with. As a reader, I found myself hyper-alert to these words- so much so that much later in the book when one of the code words was uttered just in passing, that I turned quite cold. Running through the book is the narrator’s constant surveillance and inquisition by the chilling Captain Pjele of the Securitate. Even when three of the four friends escape to Germany, they are aware of the tentacles of the Securitate and the impossibility of freedom.
The book won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 1996 and the author was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2009. The language of the book is dense and throbbing, and reads more as poetry than plot. In fact, the book itself is quite hard to follow during the act of reading, although you discern the plot almost without realizing it. As a book in translation, the deeply political act of writing a book about Romania in German escapes us, as do the nuances of being part of a German-speaking minority in Romania in post-war Europe.
I can’t say that I enjoyed reading this book. I found it oppressive and disturbing and rather unfortunately- very memorable.