Major Albu is your interrogator–day after day, week after week, month after month–and his spies track you down wherever you are. No one who is connected with you is exempt. Not Paul, your husband. Not Lilli, your best friend. Not Herr Micu, your neighbor. Not Nelu, your colleague at the clothing factory where your work. The one who turned you in. They all carry your scent.
Major Albu accuses you of lying about the notes you slipped into the back pockets of ten linen suits, the ones destined for Italy that said, “Marry me,” signed with your name and address. Major Albu demands the “facts of the case.” How many Italians do you know? he asks. You don’t know any, you have never been to Italy, but you write about a Marcello whom you met at the seashore in Constansa. Major Albu knows you are lying. You just wanted to land a Westerner to take you to a free country. Instead of an Italian, you land the Major.
In Herta Muller’s novel The Appointment, published in German in 1997, the narrator, whose name you never learn, takes a two-hour tram ride to her appointment with Major Albu. On the ride, she observes the passengers in detail. An old man with a straw hat. A father whose young child lies on his lap. The man with a briefcase. The fat woman who spits cherry seeds into her shopping bag. At each interrogation, the narrator wears the “blouse that grows” like the tree that grows outside the interrogator’s window. At home she wears “the blouse that waits,” like Paul who waits for her, like she waits for her next summons. The narrator does not tell a beginning, middle, and end story. Rather, her past bumps into the present as the present moves into the future–that is, if she’s going to have a future before she goes mad.
She tells you about her first husband who tried to throw her over a bridge; about his father who kissed her calves while she was putting towels into the cupboard; about her own father whom she saw screwing a woman on the bus he drives for work; about her grandfather and grandmother whose land was confiscated by the Communists and deported to the Baragan Steppe where her grandmother went mad; about Paul who took her on her first motorcycle ride on his Java through the bean fields. And about Lilli who was shot crossing the Hungarian border with her sixty-six-year-old officer lover and “lay red as a bed of poppies” as dogs shred her body to pieces.
The narrator never lets up. She tells her story insistently and frankly. The concrete detail surprises and entraps you. As reader, you are one with this narrator. She exposes herself as the fear suffuses her. She obsesses with her counting and sketching games to get from day to day. Her “nerves are razor wire.” Her body is nothing but “taut skin and hollow bones.” She’s afraid she might turn “into smoke and leave her body.” She wants “to prepare her [Lilli} for the feeling you get at your first interrogation, the way the roof of your mouth rises up and glues yourself onto your brain.” On the days she is summoned, she leaves her fortune with Paul at home, “in Paul’s face, around his eyes, he mouth, amid his stubble.” If you live in a totalitarian country, she tells you, you cannot make a mistake, like putting notes in men’s linen suits. She writes, “They can always accuse us of something, even if we sleep till noon. As it is, we’re always accused of something we can no longer do anything about.”
For the narrator, the bleakness of life, the incessant fear, the insidious threat she struggles with day in and day out make her feel that her “whole body feels like it’s barefoot.” She tells herself, and you, the reader, “The trick, for her, is not to go mad.”
Note about Herta Muller. A German born in Romania, Herta Muller was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2009. In an interview she states: “My literary characters reflect what happens to the human being in a totalitarian society or system and I believe this is not a topic that I choose, but rather one that my life has chosen for me…. I am bound to write about what concerns me and about the things that won’t leave me in peace.”