Nadirs by Herta Müller – A Review

Herta Müller, pg 122

Nadirs poses a problem: how does one describe a child’s vision of the world? And once that is asked the next is only logical: can you? In Nadirs Herta Müller constructs an almost privativist child, one who is not only unable to understand the social world around her, but unable to construct a narrative of her own life. In constructing such a narrator Müller has dispensed with the narrative arc which links events in one’s life into a series of logical steps to some end. For Müller incidents don’t explicitly describe the what has made someone the way they are, nor do her incidents describe a world. Instead, she use the implicit—father beats the child; father has sex with his sister-in-law; mother slaps her for inappropriate questions—interspersed with the everyday—how the cats sleep; how the organist plays. Each item is brief, a thought, and there is no linkage between them other than the narrator says they are hers. It is a completely atemporal world that neither grows nor moves forward in time.

To say that narrative is artificial is to state the obvious, but so is the lack of narative. In casting away narrative Müller suggests children are incapable of putting together coherent thoughts, that they can only explain, not theorize about their world. She may not believe that, but the effect is the same: a jumble of sensations that amount to little. The problem is not that she is breaking one or another rule of narrative fiction, it is that she has not created a new form for the genre. Her work is part memoir, part history and customs and the pastiche of the two doesn’t blend in a way that reinforce how the history and customs reflect in the memoir. Certainly, a child would not be able to place context on the events, but would a child spit out such small fragments either? Who really is the teller here: the child or an embodiment of the child? And this is the problem, because the book is not about a child’s view of the world, either one that searches for meaning or one that just relates what it knows, it is about creating a stark wasteland of memory where the author can put together all the grimy bits without having to explain why they are important. Just that they are there is enough (although knowing Müller’s history seems to enliven the book). Unfortunately, the pastiche becomes a tiresome mix of of partially worked out ideas and tedious banalities. Certainly, a book that is just one horror after another would be just as bad, but although the banal is part of every life, the banal seldom rises to insight in a work.

Despite the repetitiveness the book has its moments:

Every time I sat in front in the children’s pew, the Madonna had her finger raised. But she always had a friendly face at the same time, so I was not afraid of her. She also wore that light blue long dress and had beautiful red lips. And when the priest said that lipsticks are made from the blood of fleas and other disgusting animals I asked myself why the Madonna at the side altar was using lipstick. I also asked the priest and then he beat my hands sore with this ruler and sent me home immediately. I couldn’t bend my fingers for several days afterward.

That is Müller at her best, blending the logic of childhood together to create question the logic of the adult world. But passages like that are few and far between and more often resemble the following imagistic pasage:

Squealing salamanders in a nest that resembles a handful of frazzled corn fibers. Glued-shut eyes ooze from every naked mouse. Thin little legs like wet thread. Crooked Toes.

Dust trickles down from wooden planks.

You get chalky fingers from it, and it settles on the skin of your face so that you get the feeling of being dried out.

Whether or not that is a child’s voice may not really matter, it is the simple repetition that is either delightful or agonizing that makes or breaks the book. Given the pages and pages of fragmentary thoughts, Nadirs is not a rewarding book to read. While reality may only be narrative applied to the past, narrative, no matter how unreliable, still structures a child’s thoughts, and what may be most interesting is seeing how they structure the narrative, not the flight from it.