There is something ingrained in me that makes me believe that short books will be easy reads. I blame studying history because a short monograph on history usually means you can read the whole book and not be overwhelmed.
If any book could rid me of this foolish notion, it would be Herta Müller’s Nobel Prize-winning The Passport.
Despite being just over 100 pages, The Passport conveys the bleakness and desperation that surrounds the characters. The Passport, like much of Müller’s other pieces of fiction, deals with the struggles of the German minority in Romania under the Ceaușescu regime.
The Passport doesn’t go into depth about the terrors of the regime — nor does it need to. The book follows Windisch, the miller of a village which is predominantly German, as he struggles to obtain passports for himself, his wife, and their grown daughter. Broadly, The Passport details Windisch’s attempts at bribing officials, first with flour from his mill, and later with sexual favours from his daughter. But the most prominent part of this book is the sheer weight of suppression and the desperation Windisch and his family have to leave Romania.
Müller writes exceptional imagery. Throughout The Passport is the image of an owl that flies over the town as a harbinger of death. The owl symbolises the fear that the German villagers live with. The owl also shows how the German villagers look for something to blame for their misfortune.
Animals as symbols are used quite often in The Passport. In one scene Windisch’s wife recounts a dream she had in which she journeyed up to the attic with a flour sieve, only to find a golden oriole that had died in the attic. When she lifts ups the bird, she finds a swarm of fat, black flies underneath it.
The flies flew up in a swarm. They settled in the flour sieve. I shook the sieve in the air. The flies didn’t move. Then I tore open the door. I ran into the yeard. I threw the sieve with the flies into the snow.” –38
Müller uses the flour sieve to show domesticity and food, and the golden oriole is wished-for prosperity (perhaps the kind that the Windisch family hopes to find when they leave Romania). But the oriole is dead, and the hidden flies taint the domesticity they already have.
The portrayal of time in the novel is another part of what makes the narrative so interesting. The timeline is not entirely clear, we’re not aware if the process has taken weeks, months, or years. Despite not knowing, the tone of The Passport gives us this feeling of oppression and uncertainty.
Overall, Müller’s terse language — she writes in short, almost choppy sentences — gives us the sense of fear and nervousness that surrounded the characters. The Passport is an excellent book for those who have an interest in history, or just want a general understanding of German minorities in communist-ruled countries after the Second World War.