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Traveling on One Leg by Herta Muller

Book cover for Traveling on One Leg
For some, the pain of exile is too great even to be named. So it is for Irene, the 35-year-old protagonist of this slender but intense novel. In the 1980s, Irene has emigrated to West Germany from an unnamed Eastern bloc country to escape political persecution. Adrift in Berlin, living first in a refugee hostel and then in an anonymous apartment complex, Irene struggles to maintain her sanity while caught in an ambiguously romantic quadrangle with three men. First there is Franz, a student a decade her junior; then there is his friend Stefan, a sociologist; last is Stefan's friend Thomas, a gay man in perpetual emotional crisis. But Irene's largest preoccupation is with herself, and the novel presents a knife-sharp portrait of her acute isolation and uprootedness. Irene's anxiety as she faces her adoptive homeland's hectoring refugee bureaucracy, her unsentimental observation of Berlin street life and her rigorously controlled homesickness is depicted in spare prose that is never less than striking. The reader with a distaste for indirection, or for the kind of heroine who considers children "eerie because they're still growing," will find this novel slow going. But those patient enough to pick out the plot line amid the poetry will be rewarded with a small trove of unforgettable images.