Nadirs by Herta Muller

Nadirs by Herta Muller, who recently won the the Nobel Prize for Literature (click for my article), is a collection of mostly autobiographical short stories about surviving a communist regime and personal drama.  This 120-page work is translated from her native German language, and is one of only a few of her works that have been translated into English.  Muller straddles the surreal and reality in her stories, and in some cases this balance is executed better than in others.  However, her concise and detailed language paints vivid pictures for readers of harsh conditions and deep sadness and other emotions.

“In all the pictures, Father was frozen in the middle of a gesture.  In all the pictures, Father looked as though he didn’t know what to do.  But Father always knew what to do.  That’s why all these pictures were wrong.  All those false pictures, all those false faces chilled the room.  I wanted to get up from my chair, but my dress was frozen to the wood.”  (from “The Funeral Sermon,” Page 2)

In many ways these short stories are more like long, narrative poems filled with imagery, metaphor, and illusion, but there are occasions when Muller clearly outlines what is happening in these families and how it impacts each narrator, who in many cases is a young girl.  In “Rotten Pears,” the young narrator travels with her father and her aunt to a village to sell their vegetables and fruit, but staying overnight in a strange village reveals dark family secrets and alludes to other possibilities.

“I walk through the cemetery gate and the bell is in front of my face.  The stroke of the bell is under my hair.  The stroke is in my pulse next to my eyes and in my weary wrists under the tangled fern.  The knot that dangles from the rope of the bell is in my throat.”  (From “Oppressive Tango,” Page 86)

With stories ranging from just a few pages to 60 pages or more, Nadirs has something for the quick trip on the subway or the long leisurely moments on the couch, though many of these stories deal with deep sadness and betrayal.  Muller also is clearly a poet, economizing her words to create images that will burn into readers minds and remain there for many hours, days, weeks, and months.  She uses repetition and juxtapositions of black and white, noise and silence, and other techniques to peak readers’ curiosity.

“Their velvety bulging bellies popped and sprinkled white milk on the floor.  Then loathing crawled up on me from my shoes and put its tentacles around my throat, and its hands were gaunt and cold like the hands of the old people I saw in those beds with lids in front of which people would sit in silence and prayer.”  (From “Nadirs,” Page 18)

Overall an excellent collection to get a sense of Muller’s style, and many of these stories resemble nightmares from a child’s point of view.  Unfortunately, the short story from which the collection’s name is taken was the least engaging and overly surreal.  With “Nadirs” (click the link for a definition) being the longest story in the collection, it was tough to get through and ultimately some readers (including me) may give up and skip to other stories in the collection.

FTC Disclosure:  I borrowed this copy of Nadirs from the library.   Clicking on title links will bring you to my Amazon Affiliate page, no purchase necessary.