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book review

A portrait of friends under surveillance in ‘The Fox Was Ever the Hunter’

How can a writer conjure the dehumanized? And how are we to read of such characters? Both questions gust through the new translation of Nobel laureate Herta Müller’s remarkable novel, “The Fox Was Ever the Hunter,” in which a handful of schoolteachers and factory workers struggle through day-to-day life in the last days of Nicolae Ceausescu’s brutal Romanian regime.

The novel arrows to us from 1992 when it was published in Germany, five years after Müller herself had emigrated to West Berlin from Romania with her husband. The book does not labor to imagine the conditions which had only recently ended with the overthrown dictator’s execution on Christmas Day 1989.

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To read “The Fox Was Ever the Hunter,” the rage of that year’s revolution is entirely understandable. Power outages turn the streets black; bread lines keep people hungry; factory life is grim and exploitative; and the Securitate’s eyes see everything. Every classroom features a photo of Ceausescu, and every day the newspaper leads with his photograph.

“The forelock shines,” Müller writes of Ceausescu’s face and famous hairline, staring out at one of her characters from the morning paper. “The black inside the dictator’s eye stares out of the newspaper every day, peering into the country.”

“The Fox Was Ever the Hunter” feels like a documentary novel, but reads like poetry. In 33 chapters, the book spirals gently outward.

Here are the jobless fishing in a corpse-lined river, children roped into the tomato harvest but punished for eating any fruit themselves. Here are factory workers, copulating standing up in the shadows, desperate for warmth.

Of the writers to survive life under the Communist bloc, Müller has written most poignantly about the way surveillance and state control at once necessitated and warped the fabric of love. In her 2009 novel, “The Hunger Angel,” there are similar scenes of starving German minorities meeting secretly to make love as they toil away in work camps.

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“The Fox Was Ever the Hunter” is a short book, but the way Müller narrates gives it a luminescence, like wet stone seen at night. Contours suddenly shine into view. Slowly, Adina emerges as a protagonist. A schoolteacher with a watchful eye, she becomes involved in gatherings that earn her the Securitate’s attention. Paul, a lover of sorts, is an actor. He says reckless things.

One of the many astonishments of “The Fox Was Ever the Hunter” is how Müller builds her characters. In one early scene, Adina walks home followed by a man with a flashlight. Rather than linger, Müller pulls back to describe how poplars bear down on the street, “houses crowd together.” The night itself seems to be controlled by the government.

As “The Fox Was Ever the Hunter” expands, it faces the enormous challenge of bringing characters into view on a stage defined by its darknesses. Most characters do not have a name. They are only “a woman,” “a man,” “a child,” and sometimes, even, “the cat.”

In brief shards we begin to meet Clara, who works in a wire factory run by a kleptocratic rapist, and Pavel, Clara’s lover, who is a lawyer who may or may not be part of the state machinery.

In most books, especially novels written in the West, narrative tension tends to derive from forward momentum, from evolution. In “The Fox Was Ever The Hunter,” that machinery has been turned inward to create pressure. Propulsion comes from what happens when people are living a life that feels increasingly untenable.

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“Even ten years later the gate woman recognizes Grigore’s many children who have no idea they are related,” Müller writes of the rapist factory director. “By then tons of rust and wire mesh have been driven through the gate . . . And by then these children, too, are working in the factory. They never wished it, they’re only here because the factory is all they know.”

One day Adina gets a sign that she is being watched — part of a fox-fur rug in her apartment has been clipped off, then another — but by this point in the novel, the feeling is that if sight has been controlled by the government, language has its own will to power. It wants to speak the truth. It calls to people to wake up. The gears of oppression are slipping.

Before she emigrated to Germany, Müller worked as a translator and spoke critically of freedom of speech restrictions, a position for which she suffered. From the moment she left, Müller exercised her voice with a fury that vibrates off the page nearly a quarter century later. In this vividly poetic novel, she reminds us what life without that freedom looked, felt, and tasted like.

THE FOX WAS EVER THE HUNTER

By Herta Müller

Translated from the German by Philip Boehm

Metropolitan, 237 pp., $28

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John Freeman is the editor of Freeman’s, a literary biannual, and author of “How to Read a Novelist.”