The Appointment deals with repression under the Ceausescu regime in Romania. No date is given for the story, but it seems to be the 1970s. Herta Muller, of German heritage, was born and raised in Romania and was herself subject to oppression under Ceausescu in the ’70s. Her depiction of the psychological state of someone being followed and tormented is disturbing and revealing but also at times confusing, perhaps intentionally. Muller was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2009 for this novel.
The narrator is a young woman, perhaps in her twenties, who is on her way to an interrogation because she attempted to smuggle notes to foreigners in the linings of clothes that she helped manufacture. She had hoped to find an Italian man to marry her and take her away from Romania. She has already been interrogated several times for this and never knows when her final interrogation will come. As she rides the bus to the appointment, she reflects on her life and how one survives under a regime that sucks the life and hope out of its people. Her narration shifts between what she observes and thinks while on the bus and various experiences of her life — her betrayal by her boss and former lover, the death of her friend Lilly, her mother’s coldness toward her and her father’s infidelity, her disastrous first marriage, her second marriage to an alcoholic who seems to have a secret life of his own, and her encounters with agents of oppression: Albu, who is her current interrogator, and her former father-in-law, who in his younger days was responsible for divesting people of their land and sending them to camps.
Muller provides compelling descriptions of the fear, desperation and resignation that repression engenders in her characters. One particularly powerful passage describes the narrator’s former father-in-law removing her own grandparents from their land in 1951 and sending them to a camp where the grandmother went mad and died. Later, the father-in-law had a breakdown of his own related to a loss of some of his property. He then changed his career and his name. At the narrator’s first wedding, her grandfather recognizes his oppressor, but what can he do? I imagine it was not unusual for “retired” agents of the regime go back to a “normal life” amongst the population they oppressed.
Much of the novel though was quite confusing, and I’m not sure if it has to do with translation, cultural differences, or simply the difference between the mind that has been psychologically tormented and the mind that has not. She describes several people who succumbed to madness, including her grandmother and a neighbor’s wife. The narrator talks about holding on to her luck by engaging in certain rituals before her interrogations. She says, “…whenever I’ve been summoned, I put on my green blouse and eat a walnut.” She thinks the walnut causes her interrogations to be shorter, but it has to be cracked and eaten that morning because, “Once the nut’s been cracked, it loses its power if it lies open overnight.” The narrator also states, “Every day or so I declare: I’m doing just fine.” Her husband’s response to this is, “You feel fine because you’ve forgotten what that means for other people.”
“The trick is not to go mad,” states the narrator. But has she crossed the line to madness? At the end of the novel, she makes a startling discovery about her husband, but is it only startling to her because she has lost touch with reality? I wished the story had continued. I felt that much was left unresolved, especially regarding her husband and her own interrogation. As much as I liked it, this is the kind of novel that makes me feel that I am only scratching the surface when it comes to truly understanding the author’s intent.