Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 30, 2011

The Passport (1986), by Herta Müller, translated by Martin Chalmers

When Herta Müller won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2009, there was the usual outcry from the powerful claiming to be oppressed by the European bias of the judges.  Why is our literature being ignored? howled those who dominate the book industry throughout the English-speaking world, and of course they denigrated the winner as if to prove their point.

Tibor Fischer at the Guardian on behalf of the UK was so unimpressed that he misrepresented the plot with a reductive summary:

 The Passport is a 90-page novel about a miller, Windisch, a Swab, or ethnic German, who applies for a passport to leave Romania. That’s all in the way of plot or narrative impetus.

Well no, it’s not just about that, Mr Fischer.  Not even at literal level.  Even the dopiest reader will soon figure out that there’s more to the plot than that.

Martin Chalmers at The Telegraph is more perceptive but even he can’t resist a final histrionic sneer, dismissing Müller as psychotic:

But The Passport rarely shakes the spectre of a narrator trying extremely hard to flog her style to the appropriate pitch of doom-laden psychosis, meaning that this one-note record of a personal apocalypse may struggle to linger in the mind.

Now why couldn’t those silly judges who read her work in the original German pick that, I wonder?

Risibly, the New York Times claimed that Müller had a low profile in the English-speaking world, ‘ although “The Land of Green Plums” won the International Dublin Impac Literary Award in 1998′.  Perhaps they meant the English-speaking-world-which-matters-to-the-US  i.e. the US?  At least they have despite their reservations published excerpts and if you hunt around hard enough you will find that they reviewed The Appointment back in 2001.

(I don’t understand why America in particular is so peeved about the Nobel Prize.  They have, after all, enough mega-rich armaments manufacturers to set up a prize for unashamedly intellectual authors which could blitz the Nobel’s international prestige into oblivion if they wanted to.   They could choose, without embarrassment, to promote the work of less middle-brow authors to the world in this way if they wanted to.  A million dollar prize for elite writers writing for an elite audience would be pocket-money for American billionaires…)

Enough of all this – what do I think about The Passport?

I’ve been guilty of feeling that a novella doesn’t count as a ‘real’ novel, but this one has an impact as powerful as many a longer work.  I don’t understand how reviewers could read it and not empathise with a father distraught at the way his daughter must be used as a bargaining chip to ensure the future of the family.  This book helped me understand how Thai parents send their girls off to be ‘bar girls’ and how contemporary Aboriginal fathers in tribal societies can countenance offering their pre-pubescent daughters to powerful Elders.

Müller shows us how a family at risk of ruin, compromised by corruption, can succumb to amoral actions out of desperation.  Yes, the book is difficult to read. Yes, there are allusions I don’t understand, yes there is symbolism beyond my ken, and yes there is surrealism which I have never really understood in the art world and have little hope of comprehending in literature.  But I understand the pain of a father who smashes a mirror and vomits up his dinner when he realises the price paid for the passport out of their despair.  I feel the trauma of the girl Amelie who must sleep with the night-watchman, the priest and the militiaman in order to get that passport, and I ache for the mother whose own history involves selling her body in order to survive in postwar Rumania.

There is an intelligent review which respects both the work and the reader at Quarterly Conversation, and Jim Murdoch has written an excellent one at The Truth about Lies.  Stu at Winston’s Dad reviewed it too, and check out Wendy at Caribou’s Mom because she explains some of the background issues so well.

Update July 31st:
Karen from Germany and I have been chatting about this book at GoodReads, a conversation which may be of interest to others who have read the book.

© Lisa Hill

Author: Herta Müller
Title:  The Passport
Translator: Martin Chalmers
Publisher: Serpent’s Tail 2009
ISBN: 9781852421397
Source: Personal copy.


  1. I think Stu (Winstonsdadsblog) reviewed this some time ago. I’d forgotten I wanted to read it. Perhaps I will remember to put it on a list this time :)

    Regarding allocation of the Nobel Prize, does this constitute a sort of reverse discrimination, or is it only that it might appear so to English speakers, who are almost certain to be more familiar with anglophone authors? Either way, anyone with a lively interest in literature must be pleased to have their horizons broadened.


    • Yes, that’s what I think, Sarah. More than anything, this kind of criticism of the Nobels suggests a blinkered kind of view of Europe as a monolithic bloc, rather than a diverse union of countries, each with a distinctive culture and literary heritage. It is like suggesting that Canada and the US and South America are indistinguishable because they share the same continent.
      Thanks for reminding me about Stu’s review, I’ll add it now to the links above.


  2. Thanks for mention Lisa ,I enjoyed this and it reminds me that I must read green plums ,I don’t think anyone knows what goes through the head of the 18 people on the nobel committee ,I would like see a couple of african winners my self but got strange feeling it will be an american writer this year for some reason ,all the best stu


    • I’d like to see the profile of African writing raised, but not necessarily through the Nobel prize. It wouldn’t bother me if it went to writers from the same country three years in a row, to me the Nobel should be awarded to whoever best meets the criteria laid down in the bequest left by Alfred Nobel and if they all come from the same place it’s irrelevant.
      Having said that, I think the Nobel judges do a pretty good job of reading around the globe, it must be very difficult to do that in a multiplicity of languages coming from a diverse range of literary cultures. I’m not aware of any other award that does this to the same extent, and as a literary community I think we should cherish this prize for the work that it does in bringing the best of what’s around to the international reading public.


  3. Like you, I found this novella to be an amazing read (my review is here: ). Muller is a brilliant writer – and I don’t think you have to “get” everything in the book, as you point out, to understand the gist of it. Thanks for a great review of a book which I think more people should read!


    • Hello Wendy, thanks for your comments, and I think what you say in your review is spot on. I’ve added the link to your blog to my little list of recommended reviews because I think it’s helpful for readers coming to grips with the novel.


  4. Silly me- I’ve read ‘The Land of Green Plums’ but didn’t make the connection with your review of this book immediately. This book sounds as if it picks up on similar themes, and as a novella, I think that it would be a less gruelling read than Green Plums.


    • I think I’ll have to tackle Green Plums too, this author intrigues me.


  5. I’ve just read it. I agree with you on the substance but truly hated the style. I’ll never read anything by her again.


  6. […] a positive review, read Lisa’s take here. Share this:TwitterFacebookMorePrintLinkedInDiggEmailRedditStumbleUponLike this:LikeBe the first to […]


  7. It is interesting to see what kind of opposing and contradictory reviews and reactions this book provoked. It is not an easy read, it is about a depressing subject matter, it makes the reader feel uncomfortable – and yet, there is something incredibly gripping and fascinating about the book which left a very strong impression on me, particular because of the author’s language.
    Amazing how uninformed and dismissive the critics you quoted wrote about the book (one of them is the translator! – who by the way did a rather mediocre job); the person who reviewed the book for The Times Literary Supplement had obviously even not read the book. That says very little about Herta Mueller, but a lot about a certain category of critics.
    My own review:


    • *chuckle* It must be rather embarrassing to be a professional literary critic and not be familiar with the work of the latest Nobel Prize winner!


  8. […] experience.  (Though once was enough with a couple of authors, regrettably both female i.e. Herta Müller and Elfriede Jelinek.)  This years laureate, Abdulrazak Gurnah, is however, an author I had […]


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