The hardships and humiliations of Communist Romania are on display in this taut novel by the winner of the European Literature Prize (Müller, author of the well-received Land of Green Plums, emigrated to Berlin after being persecuted by the Romanian secret police).
The narrator, an unnamed young dress-factory worker of the post-WWII generation, has been summoned for questioning by the secret police; she has been caught sewing notes into men’s suits destined for Italy, with the desperate message “marry me” along with her address. Accused of prostitution in the workplace (and told she is lucky the charge is not treason), she loses her job, and her life becomes subject to the whims of Major Albu, who summons her for random interrogation sessions. Her major preoccupation is holding on to her sanity. This is a nearly impossible feat in a society where opportunity is limited, trust is a commodity as scarce as decent food or shoe leather, and even sinister Party henchmen are shown to be trapped in a ridiculous charade. As she travels to a questioning session, the woman spools out the tale of her past: her attempt to achieve independence after a first marriage, only to hastily fall into a second one with Paul, an alcoholic who fashions illegal television antennas for the black market; and her friendship with the beautiful and doomed Lilli, a fellow factory worker. The sharp generational divide following the war and the dreadful ways in which people learn to cope with the Communist regime are threaded throughout as are some lighter moments, shaky though they may be. Appropriately disorienting and tightly wound, this perfectly controlled narrative offers a chilling picture of human adaptation and survival under oppression.
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