Traveling on One Leg
Set two years before the fall of Communism in Europe in 1989, Herta Mueller’s novel Traveling on One Leg chronicles the emigration of Irene, a young ethnic German woman, from her native Romania to West Germany. Yet politics are never much foregrounded in Mueller’s novel. Instead, the text focuses on the romantic and personal difficulties Irene encounters in the land of her ancestors.
As the novel opens in the summer of 1987, a thirtysomething Irene meets the German student Franz, who is roughly ten years her junior. Dead drunk outside a small bar, Franz talks German to the Romanian village children, which piques Irene’s interest. Concerned for his safety, Irene escorts the highly intoxicated Franz to his tourist hotel on the Black Sea coast. Irene stays with Franz and makes love to him the next morning, and the two plan a reunion in Germany once Irene is permitted to leave.
Because her family had settled in Romania from Germany centuries ago, Irene is allowed to emigrate from the Communist country and fly to West Berlin. Franz, however, fails to show up at the airport. Instead, he sends Stefan, the former boyfriend of his sister, to welcome Irene.
From the moment Irene lands in West Berlin, Herta Mueller spins the story of a complicated romantic quadrangle reflecting the problems of unrequited love and one character chasing after the other. Thus, as Irene tries to track down the elusive Franz, she rejects the advances of Stefan. While she fantasizes about a construction worker on a scaffold outside her apartment, she finds herself suddenly in an unlikely liaison with Stefan’s friend Thomas, a bisexual former bookseller who has sold his store to become a social dropout.
Firmly focused on the central character of Irene, Traveling on One Leg tells its story in a unique, highly subjective style. The third-person narrative is often jumpy and elliptical, moving in and out of Irene’s meandering thoughts and dreams. Looking into the sky over Berlin, for example, Irene perceives the world through the filter of her own mental preoccupations:
When Irene saw an airplane flying above the city and spreading a trail of white condensation in the sky, she knew the airplane was doing a burial in the sky.
Nobody on the street paid attention to it. Nobody raised his eyes. Nobody followed this dead one with his eyes.
A reader used to more straightforward, realistic, and linear prose may find the lyrical and metaphorical mode of Mueller’s novel somewhat unusual. However, Mueller’s style beautifully reflects the fragility and highly self-conscious personality of Irene, who looks upon the world with the eyes of a curious yet alienated stranger.
Apart from telling the story of a young woman who loves a man who does not love her, and who is loved by a man whom she does not love, Traveling on One Leg also paints a haunting portrait of the ironies, absurdities, and paradoxes of the last days of the Cold War in Europe before the fall of the Communist regimes in 1989. Significantly, Mueller’s novel never identifies Irene’s native country by name, choosing the term “the other country” instead, just as no character is given a last name.
For a reader familiar with geography and history of Eastern Europe, the identification of the land with Romania is obvious, as are other references and allusions to real places in the novel. For the American edition, the jacket text of the book provides an introduction and points out Romania as Irene’s, and the author’s, native country.
Similarly, the novel only hints at a romantic liaison between Irene and “the dictator” of her country, without identifying the man by name. As the text’s generic description of the man refuses to give personality or specificity to the character, so their encounters remain vague, general, and without the trace of true passion. He only enters the narrative at a few moments, appearing almost as an afterthought.
First, when Irene prepares to leave their country, the dictator enters her apartment. He steps on her clothes and utters a few general sentences, yet he does not assault her, or prevent her departure. Later, when she is settling in West Berlin, her thoughts travel back to the dictator’s mansion, where she stayed during their affair. The vagueness of his description and of Irene’s memory of the event reinforce the novel’s idea of the colorless drabness of Communist life and the absence of personality in the dictator’s character.
Communist squalor and misery is...
(The entire section is 1879 words.)