The Appointment: A Novel

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9780312420543: The Appointment: A Novel

WINNER OF THE 2009 NOBEL PRIZE IN LITERATURE


From the winner of the IMPAC Award, a fierce novel about a young Romanian woman's discovery of betrayal in the most intimate reaches of her life

"I've been summoned. Thursday, ten sharp." Thus begins one day in the life of a young clothing-factory worker during Ceaucescu's totalitarian regime. She has been questioned before; this time, she believes, will be worse. Her crime? Sewing notes into the linings of men's suits bound for Italy. "Marry me," the notes say, with her name and address. Anything to get out of the country.

As she rides the tram to her interrogation, her thoughts stray to her friend Lilli, shot trying to flee to Hungary, to her grandparents, deported after her first husband informed on them, to Major Albu, her interrogator, who begins each session with a wet kiss on her fingers, and to Paul, her lover, her one source of trust, despite his constant drunkenness. In her distraction, she misses her stop to find herself on an unfamiliar street. And what she discovers there makes her fear of the appointment pale by comparison.

Herta Müller pitilessly renders the humiliating terrors of a crushing regime. Bone-spare and intense, The Appointment confirms her standing as one of Europe's greatest writers.

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About the Author:

Born in Romania in 1953, Herta Müller lost her job as a teacher and suffered repeated threats after refusing to cooperate with Ceausescu's Secret Police. She succeeded in emigrating in 1987 and now lives in Berlin. The recipient of the European Literature Prize, she has also won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for her previous novel, The Land of Green Plums.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

I’ve been summoned. Thursday, at ten sharp.

Lately I’m being summoned more and more often: ten sharp

on Tuesday, ten sharp on Saturday, on Wednesday, Monday. As

if years were a week, I’m amazed that winter comes so close on

the heels of late summer.

On my way to the tram stop, I again pass the shrubs with the

white berries dangling through the fences. Like buttons made

of mother-of-pearl and sewn from underneath, or stitched right

down into the earth, or else like bread pellets. They remind me

of a flock of little white-tufted birds turning away their beaks,

but they’re really far too small for birds. It’s enough to make

you giddy. I’d rather think of snow sprinkled on the grass, but

that leaves you feeling lost, and the thought of chalk makes you

sleepy.

The tram doesn’t run on a fixed schedule.

1

It does seem to rustle, at least to my ear, unless those are

the stiff leaves of the poplars I’m hearing. Here it is, already

pulling up to the stop: today it seems in a hurry to take me

away. I’ve decided to let the old man in the straw hat get on

ahead of me. He was already waiting when I arrived—who

knows how long he’d been there. You couldn’t exactly call him

frail, but he’s hunchbacked and weary, and as skinny as his own

shadow. His backside is so slight it doesn’t even fill the seat of

his pants, he has no hips, and the only bulges in his trousers are

the bags around his knees. But if he’s going to go and spit,

right now, just as the door is folding open, I’ll get on before

he does, regardless. The car is practically empty; he gives the

vacant seats a quick scan and decides to stand. It’s amazing how

old people like him don’t get tired, that they don’t save their

standing for places where they can’t sit. Now and then you hear

old people say: There’ll be plenty of time for lying down once

I’m in my coffin. But death is the last thing on their minds, and

they’re quite right. Death never has followed any particular

pattern. Young people die too. I always sit if I have a choice.

Riding in a seat is like walking while you’re sitting down. The

old man is looking me over; I can sense it right away inside the

empty car. I’m not in the mood to talk, though, or else I’d ask

him what he’s gaping at. He couldn’t care less that his staring

annoys me. Meanwhile half the city is going by outside the

window, trees alternating with buildings. They say old people

like him can sense things better than young people. Old people

might even sense that today I’m carrying a small towel, a toothbrush,

and some toothpaste in my handbag. And no handkerchief,

since I’m determined not to cry. Paul didn’t realize how

terrified I was that today Albu might take me down to the cell

below his office. I didn’t bring it up. If that happens, he’ll find

out soon enough. The tram is moving slowly. The band on the

2

old man’s straw hat is stained, probably with sweat, or else the

rain. As always, Albu will slobber a kiss on my hand by way of

greeting.

Major Albu lifts

my hand by the fingertips, squeezing my nails

so hard I could scream. He presses one wet lip to my fingers, so

he can keep the other free to speak. He always kisses my hand

the exact same way, but what he says is always different:

Well well, your eyes look awfully red today.

I think you’ve got a mustache coming. A little young for

that, aren’t you.

My, but your little hand is cold as ice today—hope there’s

nothing wrong with your circulation.

Uh-oh, your gums are receding. You’re beginning to look

like your own grandmother.

My grandmother didn’t live to grow old, I say. She never

had time to lose her teeth. Albu knows all about my grandmother’s

teeth, which is why he’s bringing them up.

As a woman, I know how I look on any given day. I also

know that a kiss on the hand shouldn’t hurt, that it shouldn’t

feel wet, that it should be delivered to the back of the hand.

The art of hand kissing is something men know even better

than women—and Albu is hardly an exception. His entire head

reeks of Avril, a French eau de toilette that my father-in-law,

the Perfumed Commissar, used to wear too. Nobody else I

know would buy it. A bottle on the black market costs more

than a suit in a store. Maybe it’s called Septembre, I’m not sure,

but there’s no mistaking that acrid, smoky smell of burning

leaves.

Once I’m sitting at the small table, Albu notices me rubbing

my fingers on my skirt, not only to get the feeling back

3

into them but also to wipe the saliva off. He fiddles with his

signet ring and smirks. Let him: it’s easy enough to wipe off

somebody’s spit; it isn’t poisonous, and it dries up all by itself.

It’s something everybody has. Some people spit on the pavement,

then rub it in with their shoe since it’s not polite to spit,

not even on the pavement. Certainly Albu isn’t one to spit on

the pavement—not in town, anyway, where no one knows who

he is and where he acts the refined gentleman. My nails hurt,

but he’s never squeezed them so hard my fingers turned blue.

Eventually they’ll thaw out, the way they do when it’s freezing

cold and you come into the warm. The worst thing is this feeling

that my brain is slipping down into my face. It’s humiliating,

there’s no other word for it, when your whole body feels

like it’s barefoot. But what if there aren’t any words at all, what

if even the best word isn’t enough.

I’ve been listening

to the alarm clock since three in the morning

ticking ten sharp, ten sharp, ten sharp. Whenever Paul is

asleep, he kicks his leg from one side of the bed to the other and

then recoils so fast he startles himself, although he doesn’t wake

up. It’s become a habit with him. No more sleep for me. I lie

there awake, and I know I need to close my eyes if I’m going

back to sleep, but I don’t close them. I’ve frequently forgotten

how to sleep, and have had to relearn each time. It’s either

extremely easy or utterly impossible. In the early hours just

before dawn, every creature on earth is asleep: even dogs and

cats only use half the night for prowling around the dumpsters.

If you’re sure you can’t sleep anyway, it’s easier to think of

something bright inside the darkness than to simply shut your

eyes in vain. Snow, whitewashed tree trunks, white-walled

rooms, vast expanses of sand—that’s what I’ve thought of to

4

pass the time, more often than I would have liked, until it grew

light. This morning I could have thought about sunflowers,

and I did, but they weren’t enough to dislodge the summons.

And with the alarm clock ticking ten sharp, ten sharp, ten

sharp, my thoughts raced to Major Albu even before they

shifted to me and Paul. Today I was already awake when Paul

started thrashing in his sleep. By the time the window sta

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