Herta Müller. Photo: AFP
Herta Müller. Photo: AFP

Book review: The Fox Was Ever The Hunter

The Nobel Prize-winning writer's recently translated early novel is consistent with her literary indictment of fascist forces

Herta Müller’s fiction is fluent in the psychosis characteristic of repressed people. The German-Romanian author circumvents the limitations of language to express the surreal desolation of the citizens of a totalitarian state. While her body of work is a ceaseless literary indictment of fascist forces during the Cold War period—essentially Nicolae Ceausescu and Joseph Stalin’s regimes—it is also largely autobiographical, claiming restitution for decades of forced silence.

The recently published English translation of the Nobel laureate’s 1992 novel reveals another damning narrative of subjugation behind the Iron Curtain. Translated from the German by Philip Boehm—who also rendered Müller’s The Hunger Angel and The Appointment in the English language—The Fox Was Ever The Hunter is set in the final months of Ceausescu’s tyrannous rule in 1989 Romania. Like Günter Grass’ Danzig Trilogy, it befits a triptych with The Appointment and The Land Of Green Plums.

Although nothing like Grass’ magical realism, Müller’s writing inherits elements of Kafkaesque absurdism, preoccupied with realizing the febrile imagination of a fettered mind on the page. The muted human spirit speaks volumes in Müller’s stories, the paranoia demands inanimate objects bear witness to the violations of civil liberties, and the oppressive silence drives an obsessive, at times deranged, appreciation of minutiae. As she scripts the experience of voicelessness through phantasms, sentience is sought in all things not human.

“I have to completely destroy the reality and have to accept that the language distributes what really happened in a completely different way…because I don’t know how language will see it. It is invented reality," she once said in an interview. Müller’s strife in conveying this reality in prose poem led to the devastatingly beautiful The Hunger Angel (2009)—which bored deep into the privation of ethnic Germans from Romania serving time in the Soviet Gulags as reparation for the crimes of Nazi Germany. It is still Müller’s greatest work.

The pervasive dread of the Securitate (secret police), and, most importantly, the guile of informers—at a time when even family members were known to betray each other—is projected in the omnipresent portrait of Ceausescu. “The forelock shines. It peers into the country every day, and it sees…. The black inside of the eye stares out of the newspaper every day, peering into the country." The “forelock" and “the black inside of the eye" are leitmotifs through the book—sirens of the invasion of privacy and paralysis of free thought.

Akin to The Land Of Green Plums, this novel focuses on the lives of young covert dissenters and unbelievers, namely Paul, Adina, Clara and Abi. Many scenes play out in public factories, slaughterhouses and schools—where children are primarily educated in harvesting tomatoes and serving the state. Ceausescu’s catastrophic economic policies compounded the scourge of the socialist regime—a failed industrialization project coupled with the export of resources created massive shortages for Romanians and they had to become bonded labour to pay off the nation’s debt.

“And it’s a contradiction, Abi thinks, that between being starved and being beaten, the prisoners were forced to fashion their guilty verdict into cabinets and chairs for a furniture factory when they had no beds themselves, only knotty wood and knotty fingers."

In the atmosphere of a cultural clampdown, Paul and Abi, who are also musicians, get into trouble for performing a song (“the forbidden song") of revolution at a concert (Face without face/Forehead of sand/Voice without voice/Nothing is left except for time/Time without time/What can you change…Night comes and sews a sack/Sews a sack of darkness).

The character that catalyses moral inquiry in the story is Pavel, a secret police officer who is romantically involved with Clara. He is suspected of clandestinely harassing her best friend, Adina, and interrogating Paul and Abi about the “forbidden song". Pavel has been visiting Adina’s apartment and neatly paring off the limbs of a fox fur rug—and piecing them back to make it seem whole. He leaves very few traces of having trespassed, save the fox fur, a deliberate ploy to psychologically traumatize her—“the fox is always lurking inside her head". This illustrates the tactics of fear and psychosis employed by the Securitate to keep people under the heel of the dictator.

As the plot advances, the book’s title is demystified, implying that the fox was always the hunter or, rather, that the fox (the hunted) and hunter are one and the same. The eventual fate of the hunter as the hunted is illuminated through Pavel and Ceausescu. But the cunning of the fox is also key, and Pavel assumes that role well. In the book, Abi is killed by Pavel’s men, and after Ceausescu’s fall Pavel flees the country for Hungary, adopting a false identity (“one coat slinks into another") using Abi’s passport.

The summary trial and execution of Ceausescu and his equally complicit wife Elena—then deputy prime minister of Romania—following the 1989 Romanian Revolution inspires confused feelings in Paul, who wrestles with this inexplicable sympathy for them even though he is “repulsed by them". Despite all the charges of human rights violations against Ceausescu, the expediency of the trial and execution was questionable.

Müller, who emigrated to Berlin in 1987, hasn’t reconciled to this dark past and the use of the roman-à-clef isn’t intended as closure. To her, the dictated silence is a calcified and unforgivable aspect of the Romanian disposition.

In the book, after the momentary exhilaration over Ceausescu’s end, his miasmic legacy endures. The last passage is telling of a maladjusted people saddled with irreparable trauma and destitution: “The last goal has been forgotten, the forbidden song has sung itself throughout the country, and now, as it spreads, it presses against the throats and turns mute. Because the tanks are still scattered throughout the town, and the bread line in front of the store is still long. Above the earthen-wall the long-distance runner dangles his naked legs over the city, and one coat slinks into another."

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