The Land of Green Plums, by Herta Muller, is a novel arguably as defined by its language as its content. There are many interpretations of Muller’s literary style, and one of the most cogent is that it serves to show the reader how indirect, and isolating, life under a totalitarian regime has to be; feelings cannot be openly mentioned, and most people operate in constant fear. One technique which is used by Muller to increase this effect is the complex and seemingly disparate images with which scenes and events are described; not only do the comparisons seem at first to be inscrutable, but they also make it difficult to ascertain if a plot point has actually happened or was simply an unusual image. Another device which contributes to this is Muller’s use of anonymity for nearly all the characters; by distancing the reader from the characters themselves, it is difficult to tell who can be trusted, and who might be acting out-of-character. The combination of these techniques keeps a wall of interpretation between the events of the story and the reader; the uncertainty this evokes in the reader echoes life in a country where information is often withheld or reshaped.
Although further reading clarifies Muller’s imagery, at first the connections are often vague or seemingly absent. For example, Muller mentions “A lost war, an SS-man who came back from the war, a freshly ironed short-sleeved shirt hanging in the wardrobe…” (p.14). While this follows a statement that the father in this paragraph went off to war, it is not certain at this point if he was the SS-man who came back, or what relevance the shirt has to this issue. The direct comparison of emotive ideas like the SS and mundane things like an ironed shirt serves to unsettle the reader. Another example of the effects of this disparity of images is the narrator stating that “There is always a wisp of cloud in the city, or else just an empty sky” (p.78). This example shows how Muller can even contrast images against one another; the use of the word “always” means that this statement actually directly contradicts itself. Given that wisps of cloud are allusions to friends, as mentioned in a poem on the same page, the point conveyed here is that a single friend is actually the best people can expect in the city. Further to this, the narrator’s thought that “The words in our mouths do as much damage as our feet on the grass” (p.89) is also confusing at first glance. However, understanding that plants in general are often used to represent childhood in this novel – the green plums (“They were oversized children.” – p.81) and the mulberry trees (“I saw a young man… carrying a sack, a sack with a mulberry tree in it” – p.4) being examples – this sentence acquires new meaning: that even the words we speak to one another can have as much effect on us as our childhoods have had. This is also true of life in a dictatorship – simply saying the wrong words can end up having a massive impact; especially within a regime which so voraciously manages information.
The second way in which Muller creates a barrier to understanding between the reader and the characters is by maintaining a measure of anonymity for all the characters. An inability to fully connect with many of the book’s characters is effective at maintaining the atmosphere of distrust. This is accomplished in a variety of different ways. For example, Georg, Kurt and Edgar are never given last names, and similarly their characterization is sparse. The reader is ultimately left to decide whether or not they trust them. Also, the narrator is never named; at times, she refers to herself and her own memories simply as “my”. Often, though, only the definite and indefinite articles are used: “The child snips the crooked ends straight…” (p.221) being an example of the former and “A father hacks away at the summer in his garden” (p.14) an example of the latter. This has a more powerful distancing effect than the narrator describing the family as her own; by referring to the family by their designations (i.e. the child, the father and the mother), they are dehumanized and disconnected from everyone but one another. Similarly, with the indefinite article, even the connections between the family members are not known; “a child” is not necessarily related to “a mother”. This disconnection also underlines the fact that any one of these people might, one day, simply be killed and their loved ones expected to act in accordance with the Party’s stance; for Lola, they were told to “abhor her crime and… despise her for it” (p.23).
While the primary issue with reading The Land of Green Plums as a novel is the unusual paratactic style, it lends it great depth as an interpretive piece and its overall effect is to underline the themes. The distance between all the characters, including the narrator and Lola – whose interaction is limited primarily to the narrator reading Lola’s diary – becomes the reader’s distance from them, and heightens the atmosphere of oppression and isolation. The reader is also disconnected from standard chronology and linear thought, with the story often being told in flashback and with varied imagery. These effects combine to produce a feeling of surreality in the reader, allowing them to more effectively experience the same paranoia and fear as the narrator. This, together with the other distancing devices already mentioned and the atmosphere of suspicion culminating in Tereza’s betrayal, make the novel solipsistic – the only person the reader definitely knows at the end of the book is the narrator. The first and final lines of the book – “When we don’t speak, said Edgar, we become unbearable, and when we do, we make fools of ourselves” (p.1, p.242) – attest to this point; whatever someone does, whether they are silent or talkative, they will be either hated or ridiculed, and either way they are alone.