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A Foreign Take on a Very Personal Experience – Romania under Ceaușescu’s Dictatorial Regime

foxever

The Fox Was Ever the Hunter by Herta Müller
First English Translation
by Philip Boehm on May 10, 2016
Macmillan
Source: I bought it
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From the winner of the Nobel Prize hailed as the laureate of life under totalitarianism, a haunting early novel of surveillance and paranoia. Romania—the last months of the Ceausescu regime. Adina is a young schoolteacher. Paul is a musician. Clara works in a wire factory. Pavel is Clara’s lover. But one of them works for the secret police and is reporting on the rest of the group.” Source: Macmillan.

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Review

Perhaps I was expecting a bit much of this book in imagining it would touch my soul in a most profound and resonating way. See, The Fox Was Ever the Hunter is the story of a teacher’s life (1) during the last few year’s of Ceausescu’s communist regime (2; 1980s – place and decade of my birth), and moreover, it’s written by a Romanian, also an emigre (3). Considering that’s 3 for 3, I naively assumed this would somehow be the story of my life, the conundrum of my dual-identity explained, the nostalgia for a horrific yet clearer, more certain time expressed in all its contradictory complexity.

Alas, it was not to be. This book reminds me not at all of Romania, answered no questions for me, resonated not at all with anything I remember, and was written in a style I do not recognize as Romanian at all.

Perhaps the root of my incomprehension stemmed from the translation: of German into English. As any dual-language speaker can probably attest to, there are certain peculiarities of thought and experience that give language its meaning. An example: a quince. Do you know what that is? If you live in the US, most likely not. The word quince meant nothing to me in English, either; until recently I had no idea what this term even referred to (that was until the day I discovered this fruit at Whole Foods, in the bougie section). Of course, a gutuie – aah, that is something very different, a word that immediately conjures up tastes and fuzz and memories of summer and a tartness most unique. Also, of the country-side, of picking fruit from trees on the street in local villages – certainly not a $4.99/pound ritzy experience at the local Gourmet Grocery.

Another example: cotton wool. The stuff cotton balls are made out of. See, in 1980s Romania, there were no fancy bandages or tampons or cotton swabs or cotton balls. No – there was simply “vată” – huge bags of cotton-wool, sold like cotton-candy. You’d roll it around toothpicks to clean ears, fashion it into pads or bandages, multi-purpose style. So when I read “cotton wool” – that means nothing. In English, we don’t speak of “cotton wool”. In Romanian, however, the word “vată” is imbibed with meaning – meaning that Müller does not always explain.

Perpetually as I was reading this book, I kept trying to translate portions of it into Romanian – I just could not at all conjure the mood of Romania, the place, removed from the language.

BUT, my disconnect from this book arises not just from the translation, but from Müller’s style. The entire book is a poem – in prose form, but still, poetry, of a vague, indirect, fuzzy, detached form, completely humorless. If there’s ONE characteristic of Romania 1980s I deeply believe was our saving grace: dark, surreal, ironic humor was it- biting sarcasm, cynical deadpan, the view that even in the most dire situation, we could still choose to laugh, to escape. And more than that, I remember a culture of directness, of a very pragmatic romanticism, of a quite attuned/attached approach to life – not the nebulous cloud of uncertainty and pointlessness Müller’s writing suggests.

This fearless, laugh-in-the-face-of-impending-death-sentence soul of communism is beautifully portrayed by writers like Bulgakov and by non-fiction studies of the period (such as a brilliant book I’m currently reading,Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets by Svetlana Alexievich). In contrast, Müller’s work is about pathetic, paranoid, fearful people, who have no hope of salvation from the hopelessness and helplessness of their situation.

Perhaps my reading is biased by the language-gap I was not able to overcome; perhaps, it’s that I remember city-life vs. country-life (Müller is the daughter of farmers); perhaps it has something to do with Müller’s Romanian-German identity/lineage vs. my București-Romanian one. Who am I to say another Romanian’s reading is illegitimate? What I would really like is to (1) read a Romanian translation of this and (2) read other Romanian people’s thoughts on this book/review.

In the meantime, I’m going with 2 stars because not only did I recognize nothing of myself/Romania in this (perhaps unfair, but hey this is my review), but I don’t necessarily see the broad appeal of this work. Feel free to negate this in the comments. As you can tell, I’m quite conflicted about my feelings on this one and will gladly take any input.

11 comments

  1. I see that this book has rather average to middling review overall on Goodreads. So you’re not the only one who didn’t connect to it. That’s unfortunate. I’m sure you picked it up expecting a much more familiar reading experience. I would hate to buy a book from an author with such a similar background as mine and finding little in it that I recognize.
    I hope you’re next read is better. No one wants to read two bad books in a row!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Naz! It’s not a popular book in other languages for sure, I’m curious to see English-readers’ reaction (this is its first translation into our language). And, it IS disappointing when you fail to connect at all with a book from a perspective that you expect may illuminate your own/teach you something about yourself. Oh well – greener pastures ahead – I’m reading one right now that completely makes up for this – an oral history of the breakup of the USSR. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I think you’ve made a really important point here; depicting the Romanians during this time as paranoid,fearful people doesn’t do justice to them, and almost only serves to generate pity for them. Thank you for the insight into your culture, language and history. I wouldn’t have known this otherwise!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much Fatima. I just finished another book by another Nobel laureate, this one a journalist/oral historian (Svetlana Alexievich), who I think does a much better job of depicting the fighting, proud/self-respecting spirit of the region. So my reading balance has been restored 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Ugh! I’m sorry this book didn’t do it for you. Especially since it could have been a very relatable book from the culture you were born into. I often wonder if I pick up books and have too high of expectations resulting in judging a book too harshly. I highly doubt you did in this case.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You know, I can’t even tell what I would have thought about this if I didn’t have expectations – I think any book with the word “Romania” in the synopsis somewhere triggers massive expectations for me. Honestly, I may even have liked it to some degree if I didn’t know what place it was supposed to be about (my problem with it is its depiction of what I remember as home, not necessarily the plot/writing). Oh well. I’m reading a book right now about the breakup of the USSR which is much more satisfying and to which I can relate a lot more – it’s so good in fact that it more than makes up for “The Fox” 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve been thinking lately about my own reading habits and expectations – more on that via blog later maybe. And it strikes me that you often have an intense and personal reaction to books – which is NOT a bad thing! Same thing as we were talking about with our friends and their relationship with music. I might be more…escapist? academic? Maybe we should both write about this!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I would love love love to do a co-post with you!!! Let’s totally plan this via pm/email 🙂
      A quick thought is that I have two purposes regarding my reviews
      (1) I use them as a journal/reflection (I read to know myself?)

      (2) I’m attempting the phenomenological disclaimer – since we’re all biased in how we read/interpret books, I think the best way to help others figure out if they would like one for themselves is to disclose my predispositions/biases. In the process of doing this I find I’m able to (ironically?) be much more ‘objective’ in my ratings.

      So ppl like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn get 5 stars when all my baggage is revealed – don’t agree with him at all on anything, don’t enjoy most of his books, but still have to admit he’s super-brilliant. It’s also why for ex. our conversations (which revealed my predispositions to me) led me to up the Martian to +3 from -10000 🙂 This one… well, it’s worth -10 in my book, probably more like 3.5 (GR rating) for everyone else, and I compromised here at 2…

      Like

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