Things tend to weather dictatorships with far greater success than people do. For Romanian Nobel Laureate Herta Müller, the constancy implicit in this banal fact is an inspiration and a godsend. “How do you have to live, I wondered, to be in harmony with what you honestly think?” Müller asks in “The Land of Green Plums,” her 1994 novel about life under Nicolae Ceausescu’s dictatorship. “How do things manage — objects lying in the street? How do they manage not to draw attention as you walk by — even though someone has lost them?”
For Müller, the longevity of things is a fascination of great urgency. In “The Fox Was Ever the Hunter,” her latest work to be published in English, this concern takes on an encyclopedic, yet characteristically poetic, bent. Set during the final months of Ceausescu’s rule, the novel, deftly rendered by Müller’s longtime translator Philip Boehm, tells the story of two close friends, Adina and Clara, their alternate survival methods in the regime and the things that separate their fates.
As the title suggests, a fox is the thing at the center of this novel. It comes in the form of a beautiful striped pelt that Adina and her mother bought directly from a hunter years prior. Its luxurious, warm fur harks back to a less complicated time. “The hunter laid the fox on the table and smoothed out its fur. He said, you don’t shoot a fox. A fox will step into a trap,” Adina recalls of the purchase. “Even back then, fox and hunter were one and the same.” For the duration of the novel, Adina, Clara and their lovers and friends become the hunters and the hunted, trying not to step into traps.
Clara is the first to do so. After Pavel, a well-dressed lawyer identified primarily by his birthmark and his necktie, follows her into a clothing shop, they tumble into an affair. But Pavel is not a lawyer who works in the courthouse. His job takes him to the apartments of dissidents, including Adina’s. For weeks on end, Adina returns to her apartment to find that a new part of the fox has been severed from its body. At first, she slides the offending parts back together, pretending nothing happened. But that soon becomes unbearable, and Müller delivers this arresting passage: “Adina lifts her hands off the table. Where they were resting the table is warm. And down on the floor, where the fox is the hunter, her fingers slide the cut-off legs against the fur. And after her hands have once again warmed the table, they clasp her forehead. Her hands sense that her forehead is as warm as the table, but unlike the table it no longer knows anything about inhabiting a place, abiding.”
Adina and Clara take lessons in how to abide under duress from the things of their world. Adina learns the nature of endurance from the fox, from the hair clippings on the floor of the barbershop, from the dark forelock of the dictator and the “black inside the eye” that stares down from every one of his ubiquitous portraits. For Clara, Pavel’s necktie and the coffee, sugar, cigarettes and flowers he brings her — along with perfume that “smells like secret police” — dictate her ability to persist in Ceausescu’s totalitarian world.
Müller learned these survival techniques as a child, watching over her parents’ cows in the Romanian country fields. “I’d look at the plants and animals and think to myself, ‘They have a good life, they know how to live.’ So I tried to get closer,” she said in an interview for the Paris Review. She invented new plant names, ones she felt more aptly captured their essence. “When I made up my own names, it was another attempt to get closer to the plants, because they knew how to live and I didn’t. But it was a gap I couldn’t overcome.”
Literature is often at its best, and most urgent, when it is a survival tactic. In her writing, Müller inches closer to narrowing the gap between people and things, between life and language. For that reason, her sparse prose often resembles poetry. “Language always has to be kept on a tight rein,” Müller once said. Much like the life it depicts, Müller’s episodic tale doesn’t come with frills. Originally published in her native German in 1992, “The Fox Was Ever the Hunter” is a haunting portrayal of the secret lives of people and things during the last breaths of an obliterating regime.
Linda Kinstler is a Marshall Scholar at the University of Cambridge and a contributing writer at Politico Europe.
By Herta Müller
Translated from the German by Philip Boehm
Metropolitan. 237 pp. $28