Book Review | The Appointment by Herta Müller

The Appointment Review Paige's PagesTITLE: The Appointment
: Herta Müller
: 1997
: Adult Fiction
: 208

Nobel Prize winner, Herta Müller, writes about life in Romania during Nicolae Ceausescu’s totalitarian regime.  I expected a story of isolation and suffering; instead, The Appointment weaves poetry from pain and beauty from the mundane.

An unnamed seamstress is indicted by Ceausescu’s secret police on a false charge of prostitution.  The tram ride to her interrogation gives her time to reflect on her life, especially her relationships with friends and family.  The stream of consciousness structure revisits key moments from her past in no particular order, the way your mind wanders on a long journey.

The worst thing is this feeling that my brain is slipping down into my face.  It’s humiliating, there’s no other word for it, when your whole body feels like it’s barefoot.  But what if there aren’t any words at all, what if even the best word isn’t enough – page 4

The Appointment‘s unnamed narrator has a sense of humour that made me respect her resilience instead of pity her.  Behind a what-doesn’t-kill-you-makes-you-stronger façade, she is extremely self-aware.

Her descriptions of people and places are often lyrical and always articulate, seeing past the surface to question the hidden purpose.  I thought she seemed untouchable – as if even the most terrible consequence couldn’t crush her soul.  This effect could easily be interpreted as a coping mechanism developed from her past trauma.  She is a brilliant choice of eyes through which to study life under dictatorship.

There aren’t enough trees around to make a single coffin – you’ll have to be mine and I’ll be yours – page 175

The above quote stood out to me as a brilliant metaphor for the main themes of The Appointment.  The narrator’s memories repeatedly depict families protecting and hurting one another; love and pain go hand-in-hand in her experience.  This inevitably results in toxic gender politics: for example, many male characters feel justified cheating on or beating their wives.  In a poverty-stricken place where people must be mistrustful and selfish in order to survive, the narrator notices how people are bound to their family for better or for worse.  In The Appointment, painful relationships are often the only thing people have left to count on.

This book easily deserves five stars for literary merit.  As a Nobel Prize winner, Müller exacts careful control of her pacing, plot development, and choice of poetic language.  The narrative is stripped bare of inverted commas, question marks, and chapter breaks.  I liked how this minimalistic format meant there were no distractions from the story.

I chose to give The Appointment four stars because I found the slow pace regularly lost my attention.  I wonder if I could have avoided this issue by reading it quicker instead of over a couple of weeks.  That said, the narrator’s voice is beautifully developed and engaging.  You could even argue that the slow pace is a metaphor for the maddening process of the narrator’s indictment; the secret police appear to be trying to drive her to breaking point.

The Appointment is a brilliant, readable representation of life under dictatorship.  Müller takes care to show the many facets of her experience living under Ceausescu’s regime, surprising readers with humour and beauty alongside tragedy.  Her unnamed narrator has a memorable voice that will live on inside my head and haunt me with eloquent quotes.    

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