The Passport – by Herta Muller

The Passport by the Nobel prize winning author Herta Muller is only 92 pages long but it’s quite a journey! Her writing is very different. She wrote short sentences; each chapter is very short, only a page or two long, and has its own title, but the images are powerful, surreal and culturally superstitious.

The chapters are connected to tell the story of a village miller who lived with his wife and a daughter in a German minority region in Romania. He applied for a passport to emigrate to West Germany and bribed the village official with sacks of flour but it didn’t work out, until he sent his daughter to sleep with the village officials. Interwoven in this story are random flashbacks of the hard life these German minorities had in labor camps in the Soviet Union where they were forced to go after WWII (this is the main theme in her other novel The Hunger Angel which I’m currently reading).

Growing up under the communist regime myself, I saw in The Passport again the authority’s confiscation of people’s properties, the bribery to the officials to get things done (or not) and to survive, and the extremely poor life people suffered under the totalitarian.

Muller’s short prose and surrealist images made this novel a strange one. Some of the chapters seem sporadic and not connected at all, which require some patience to read thru. But all in all the novella is culturally and historically rich. It’s worth the effort.

The Passport was published in German in 1986, and in English in 1989.

Mãn – by Kim Thúy

Kim Thúy is a Vietnamese Canadian writer who lives in Montreal, Canada. She was one of the four novelists short listed for the Alternative Nobel prize in literature in 2018. Mãn was published in French in 2013 and in English in 2014.

Like her debut novel Ru, Mãn consists of short passages linked together to tell the story of a mixed Vietnamese girl married off to a Vietnamese oversea without courting, without love. He sponsored her to Montreal, Canada where she came to live as a dutiful wife, helping him with his small restaurant and giving birth to two children. She lived a peaceful life until she met a married French chef in Paris and fell in love at first sight for the first time in her life. Their romance opened up a new world to her, be it romantic or heartbroken.

Kim Thúy’s writing is lyrical, poetic, and textured. Her descriptions of plenty of traditional Vietnamese foods are luscious. Her storytelling of various Vietnamese traditions and customs is interesting. The way the protagonist resolved her affair is very typical of Vietnamese women – sacrificing themselves for the family, the next generation, and their nation.

This is a story of resilience, of quiet sacrifices, of delicious food, of enthralling poetry, and of warm hearts and rich emotions. A uniquely beautiful novel.

Masks – by Fumiko Enchi

Yasuko is the daughter-in-law of the Togano family. Her husband died from being swept away by an avalanche on Mount Fuji while going hiking two years ago, but Yasuko still stays with the family. She continues her husband’s work in spirit possession and helps Mieko, her mother-in-law, edit a poetry magazine as well as being her secretary keeping schedules on social gatherings, poetry readings, etc… She is described as young, smart, and beautiful, and two men have fallen in love with her after her husband’s death – one is a single psychologist doctor, and the other is a married professor teaching at the same department as her husband did.

Mieko, having lost her fist child when she first got married due to the jealousy of her husband’s mistress, turned bitter in life and has been seeking revenge. She is always wearing a cold face and no one can tell what she really feels and thinks. Yasuko has said that “the secrets inside her mind are like flowers in a garden at nighttime, filling the darkness with perfume.” She manipulated Yasuko to remain in the family and have an affair with the married professor. Yasuko deep down wanted to leave and live her own life independently, but she couldn’t, as if under her spell.

Masks was written with the underlying motifs of No mask, shamanism, folklore, traditional Japanese theater. There are plenty of discussions about No masks, about spirit possession in the Tale of Genji. There is even an eerie description of a séance in the book.

Masks was written in 1958 in Japan where patriarchy was dominated. Fumiko Enchi was known for writing novels to empower women, or to depict women’s retribution against men, particularly thru her theory on shamanism in this case.
“In our own day, shamanism seems to have withered and died. Yet does it not, on second thought, offer a partial explanation of the power women still have over men? Perhaps it is true, as Buddhism teaches us, that this power constitutes woman’s greatest burden and delusion – and ultimately her greatest sin. But the sin is inseparable from a woman’s being.”

Masks really is a masterpiece. The writing is beautiful, the characters are deep and layered, and the story is intriguing. It offers a look into Japanese folklore culture and women’s intricate psychology.

Masks by Fumiko Enchi
Published in Japanese in 1958
Published in English by Juliet Winters Carpenter in 1983.