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Language as Survival in THE LAND OF GREEN PLUMS

Megan Hong


Megan Hong

The University of Georgia


Language as Survival in The Land of Green Plums


Herta Müller’s The Land of Green Plums, a critique of Ceausescu’s Communist regime, explores the definition of freedom through linguistic rebellion. The unnamed protagonist utilizes her minority language, German, in the form of poetry, letters, and cryptic codes to challenge communist ideology and to undermine Ceausescu’s censorship. The protagonist defines individual freedom through the lens of an oppressed minority seeking to express herself in her own language, free of Ceausescu’s control. A meditation on the significance of self-expression and freedom of expression, The Land of Green Plums is unequivocally political, championing a Western liberal individualism and challenging socialist dogma that places the common good at the expense of individual freedoms.



Herta Müller’s The Land of Green Plums addresses the difficulties of living in Nicolae Ceausescu’s Romania. The unnamed female protagonist details her experiences of living in an oppressive and violent police state. In Ceausescu’s vicious world, the protagonist manages to survive through the use of language by deploying poetry, books, letters, and secret codes to her defense. Specifically, the protagonist and her friends use German, an unofficial, minority language, as an escape and a critique of the totalitarian regime: Ceausescu’s society fails to defeat the protagonist because of her discovery that language could create another world for her and her friends to survive in. By communicating in German, the protagonist forges a space that allowed her to be herself and allowed her to be free. By speaking her native language and using it to challenge and circumvent censorship, the protagonist seeks to undermine Ceausescu’s regime. Müller illustrates the repressive condition of the German minority in Romania as a damning critique of a totalitarian government whose raison d’être was to vanquish the freedom of the individual; the novel, by extension, can be seen as a critique of socialist dogma, which places the common good over individual freedoms.

            Ceausescu’s Romania was under his strict personal control: his wife was head of the National Council for Science, his brother a general in the Army, and another brother a general in the secret police. Ceausescu had a hand in all of state affairs; he controlled everything. Under Ceausescu’s censorship, the protagonist is unable to be an individual, to grow independently of the government’s restrictions and desires. Communism rests on the idea that the collective is more important than the individual; this is the context in which the protagonist seeks to assert personal independence. Müller questions the ideology behind Ceausescu’s regime through the protagonist’s rebellion and her desire to be an individual. The protagonist discovers a way in which she can converse and avoid censorship, and in turn rebels against the stringent restrictions that Ceausescu enforces.

            The protagonist’s friendship with Edgar, Georg, and Kurt develops initially from their commonalities – their fathers were members of the SS during World War II; their complaining mothers use letters as their medium, and they all come from German-speaking communities. These characters, one might assume, face the repression of communism within their own families as a kind of punishment for their fathers’ crimes, but this dark past does not seem to haunt the book. The boys introduce the protagonist to the summerhouse, their safe haven, which is where she hides Lola’s notebook, a journal from her friend who committed suicide, and where they hide books, poetry, and photographs. The summerhouse is a place where they can speak freely, in German. The books in the summerhouse “were written in German, [their] mother tongue” and “in the land those books came from, there were bluejeans and oranges, soft toys for children and portable TVs for fathers and whisper-thin nylons and real mascara for mothers” (47). These books, as well as Lola’s notebook, serve as an escape from the harassment of the unforgiving world in which she lives. Reading the summerhouse books and Lola’s notebook help keep her alive and strong, shielding her from the depressing realities of Ceausescu’s Romania. The protagonist’s reading of German literature is an act against the totalitarian regime: Ceausescu censored literature in order to control history and knowledge, so this enjoyment of literature gives the protagonist and her friends an avenue of freedom. Furthermore, the summerhouse itself is an act against Ceausescu because of its preservation of German literature and culture through its mini-library of German books, which provide ideas and narratives otherwise unavailable in Romania. This is a linguistic rebellion against Ceausescu, and a metaphor of the desire for freedom. As a minority, this group of friends wants liberation from the power of Ceausescu and the constraints of communism, though they aspire not so much to national independence as to individual liberty. Universal equality, which communism promised but Ceausescu never provided, is rejected in favor individual freedoms.

           The deep bond between the characters that language consistently provides is emphasized by their friendship poem. The poem comes from one of the books in the summerhouse; they use it as a way to stay close when they are apart, each of them knowing it by heart:


Everyone had a friend in every wisp of cloud

that’s how it is with friends where the world is full of fear

even my mother said, that’s how it is

friends are out of the question

think of more serious things (73).


The poem reiterates the idea that Ceausescu’s reign through the use of fear exists only to control people. The friends, along with the protagonist’s mother, cite this poem and understand that life in Ceausescu’s Romania is insufferable. The poem suggests that living in this totalitarian regime, the individual has to give up all desires because of the fear of the dictator’s oppression. Ironically, however, this poem about the limits of friendship brings the friends closer together. Ceausescu’s regime is aware of the power of language, an example of which is Captain Pjele interrogation. He uses the friendship poem against them, and even makes his own version of the poem:


 I had three friends in every wisp of cloud

 that’s how it is with friends where the world is full of clouds

 even my mother said, that’s how it is

 friends are out of the question

 think of more serious things (95).


The friends use poetry to remain close together and to remind themselves that in this world full of fear, there is hope, but Captain Pjele’s distortion of the poem shows that their most sacred form of communication and way to freedom is not safe from the dictator’s intrusion. With the threat of the Ceausescu breathing down their necks, they have to find another way to communicate to each other.

            Letters are key to the survival of the narrator as well as to her communication with her friends and family. Once the interrogations start, the friends divide the books, photographs, and notebooks and begin instead to communicate through letters. In order to tell each other the truth about their situations without giving away too much to Captain Pjele, who is clearly reading their correspondences to one another, they create a secret code. .The code of the letters allows the friends to communicate without fear. They “put the date, and always put a hair with the letter” and use the word “nail-clippers” to mean “interrogation.” “Shoes” means “search” and a sentence about having a cold is a warning that “you’re being followed” (81). The friends develop more elaborate warnings and signals through minute details like punctuation and word choice. The words they use hold more meaning than they appear to have on paper. These words hold the friends’ fears and hopes for each other. As survival becomes more difficult, their communication changes out of necessity: even German, their shared minority language, is no longer exclusive enough; they must communicate in a private language known only to them.  This shows the increasing difficulty of circumventing Ceausescu’s regime. But despite the constant terror, the characters manage to find a way to survive, through the elaborate coded language of their letters. These codes, their own form of censorship, are a tool used against the regime that reveal an irony in Ceausescu’s censorship methods. They use one of his tactics against him and prove that there is a medium in which they can be free to express themselves as individuals.

            At the end of the novel Edgar says to that narrator: “When we don’t speak … we become unbearable, and when we do, we make fools of ourselves,” a statement which reveals that their survival is going to be an ongoing struggle from the beginning to the end (242). Silence, or the lack of language, is unbearable – one cannot survive without the use of language, but using language becomes problematic as well. The friends’ attempts to survive through language are constantly thwarted by the regime, but the alternative would be to submit and to give up any chance of freedom. Until they are able to be truly free, they must settle for these small victories in their use of language and codes to express themselves. Müller demonstrates the ultimate freedom of expression, her novel, in which she exhibits her abhorrence towards the Ceausescu regime and what it stands for: the death of the individual. The protagonist’s fight for individualism is a fight against communist ideology, and through her conquest of censorship and fear, she finds freedom.



Works Cited


Müller, Herta, and Michael Hofmann. The Land of Green Plums. New York: Picador, 2010. Print.



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