Reading Log: Herta Müller’s ‘Nadirs’ and the Value of Juxtaposition in Bleakness

This is a very well-written book. In a series of short stories that bookend a much longer novella, the author presents her oppressive life as a young girl in a German-speaking Polish town.  Müller evokes an undeniable sense of place ( and it’s not a nice place). The bleakness throughout -but especially in the title piece, Nadirs- gets overwhelming very quickly. I’m all for some powerful darkness, (witness my readings over the last year or so) but Müller’s work hear dips dangerously into the territory of misery-porn.

This kind of self-aggrandizing wallowing would be utterly damning if the prose itself weren’t redeeming -which it is. It’s not a book to read straight through, in spite of it’s short length. The misery, although powerfully denoted, is weakened to a great extent by its lack of juxtaposition. Everything is dying animals and rolls of sallow skin over fat. Without anything interesting to set them off, major sections of this book are set in a lifeless gray-scale, painfully flat.

Not that Müller never breaks out of the monochromatic- there are passages in here that are absolutely hilarious (I don’t really buy the idea that German humor is underdeveloped -if anything, it’s more understated). There are glimmers of light, but the reader does well to remember the title of the work. Niederungen can be translated most literally as “lowlands”, but the use of plural form of the superlative “nadir” communicates a much more deliberate intensity. Translation is not something that someone of my limited linguistic skills can even really comprehend, but -near as I can figure- that’s a damn good title.

Recommendation: While I won’t recommend it unreservedly, it’s still a very good read. It’s failings might keep it from transcendence, but the arrangement of words on the page is still an excellent arrangement of words on the page. Push through the titular story.

by Herta Muller