Herta Müller is a Nobelist writing in German. Philip Boehm was awarded the Oxford-Weidenfeld Prize for translating her The Hunger Angel and has also translated Brecht and Hanna Krall. I’d been meaning to read both their work for a while, and pre-ordered their latest collaboration, just published by Portobello Books.
Reading The Fox Was Ever the Hunter while travelling through Germany last week, I had some very interesting conversations about life ‘behind’ the iron curtain before it came down. Which is what this book is about – in Müller’s native Romania.
Müller writes with extraordinary intensity. Each little snippet is so evocative that it could stand as a poem or short story (or ‘stamp‘) of its own. Boehm sustains this masterfully. I barely noticed the (for me) ‘foreignness’ of the US English. Midway through the book, the protagonist Adina recalls how her boyfriend passed the prison every time he leaves town for Bucharest:
“The cells are located in back, by the prison yard. People who don’t have family or friends locked up don’t see the cells, Ilie said back then, but those who do have someone there know where to look. For a few hundred meters along this stretch, he said, the faces inside the compartment separate. And it’s obvious which eyes know where to look.”
It takes a while to see how all these snippets connect. The most private is public, however hard you try not to show emotion; you feel increasingly oppressed – ‘the dictator’s spies’ (of which the author has first-hand experience) are everywhere, more aware of your movements and thoughts than you are yourself.
Every time Adina comes home, there is something else – a melon seed, a cigarette butt – floating in the toilet bowl in her locked flat. And another limb of her fox fur has been sliced off so cleanly that it also looks untouched.
What will happen to her when the fox is decapitated?
And when it seems it’s all over, is it really? How much has really changed?
Reading this in very comfortable circumstances (illustrated) I was reminded not to get too comfortable…