I have had the great honour and pleasure of being invited to join a book discussion club. They've been reading together for a few years and recently decided to invite some more people, and I'm honoured to have been one of them. Hardly surprisingly the book of choice for the December meet was one by our latest Nobel Prize winner, so I interrupt the regular programming of crime fiction for a bit of Culture. I read the book in a Swedish translation, but I decided to write about it in English anyway. Y'know, for that international touch.
The novel seems to be largely autobiographical, echoing events in Müller's own life. It is a largely linear story, with some flashbacks or glimpses of the future here and there, but told in episodes rather than a straight line. I was reminded of P.O. Enquist and Jeanette Winterson. The way I understand the linear story is as follows: the narrator, who grew up in a village, comes to the city to study, sharing a room with five other girls. One of them is a troubled soul, desperate to find a white-collar man. She joins the Party, which in combination with some selfish habits leads to tension in the shared room. After her apparent suicide the narrator becomes friends with three young men who oppose the regime, and collect unpermitted literature in a secret place. At one point they are all taken in for questioning. Later they find work, but it becomes difficult for them to work with their political views. They are fired. Three of them leave the country, and two of them end up killing themselves. Interspersed with this are short episodes from the narrators childhood, which are written in a slightly more fantastical fashion, leaving the reader more unsure of what is real and what is childish imagination.
Right, so did I like it? I'm not sure. I felt as though I was missing something. Some sort of background information. There was imagery I didn't fully get, such as the green plums referred to in the English title - when she is a child the narrator's father says that green plums will kill her, and as an adult she keeps pointing at this eating of green plums and how the guards of the totalitarian state eat green plums always. I don't really understand this. Why would anyone eat green plums at all, they're vile. I must be missing something. It's going to be really interesting discussing this tomorrow, and I'll probably update the post then. I'm wondering if it's a translation issue, but I don't think so, the translation seems good. Is it just that I'm unfamiliar with her work, and this is best read in conjunction with earlier books?
Update after just arriving home from club: it was indeed very interesting to read what the others thought about the book. Some opinions we shared, like that it was generally not easy to read, but in some we differed. Got some new ideas on the green plums issue that were interesting. Has made me determined to re-read book at later date. I had so much fun!