- The Head of the HunterHerta Müller and Surveillance in the Digital Age
In February of this year, I received an e-mail with a strange symbol in the address line, a broken red padlock next to the sender’s name indicating that the message was not encrypted—specifically, that the message, as well as my reply, had been sent without a basic protection known as “Transport Layer Security.” The range and confidential nature of some of the e-mails that came and went this way was troubling: one from an editor about a potential assignment, another from a close family friend and local politician, yet another from my credit card company to notify me about a potential fraudulent charge. I became nervous: How long had some of my messages been unsecured? Who was watching? These questions seem to become only more pertinent as the shadow of the internet lengthens into every detail of our daily correspondence.
This fear of some nefarious, eavesdropping intelligence has deep roots in twentieth-century fiction, much of it European, from the speculative approaches of 1984 and The Trial to novels such as The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Darkness at Noon, which confront this menace through the immediacy of realism. Romanian Nobel laureate Herta Müller’s recently translated novel, The Fox Was Ever the Hunter—originally published in 1992 in her native German and now translated into English by Philip Boehm—is among the best additions to this anxious canon following the Cold War. Müller was hounded for years by her country’s intelligence apparatus: an experience wrought with desperation, fear, and paranoia that she brings to the fore in Fox. For Müller, growing up in a repressive dictatorial regime, the concerns of surveillance were not simply questions of hypothetical snooping, but instead held the highest stakes imaginable, those of life and death.
Under Nicolae Ceauşescu, who held power from 1965 to 1989, the Romanian government operated one of the largest and most repressive secret polices in the world, the Securitate. The Securitate led brutal crackdowns on dissidents using a broad network of informants that made organization nearly impossible, while anyone found in opposition would be tortured or killed. Forced entry and bugging of homes and offices was commonplace, leading to the widespread paranoia seen in Müller’s novel.
Under the vigilance of the Securitate, any citizen, no matter how loyal, was a potential target of suspicion, which is how a village schoolteacher named Adina finds herself under surveillance. A Securitate agent, Pavel, slowly begins to infiltrate Adina’s life. Müller never discloses why Adina has come under [End Page 219] government scrutiny, mimicking, in a way, the obliqueness of the Securitate’s intimidation as well as the omnipresent dread Romanians felt during the Ceauşescu years. Kicking down doors is one way to control a population, but there is something equally sinister, if not more effective, in perpetuating a question of who is safe and who is not—and who is watching.
The apartment is rather plain and unadorned, with the exception of a sentimental fox-fur rug that her mother bought her when she was a little girl. Nothing seems amiss, until “her foot slips on the fox’s tail, which slides away from the rest of the fur. The tail has come off where the stripe running down the back is the lightest.” At first Adina attributes this to rot or age, but the break is crisp and precise, and the truth of the moment begins to sink in. As the novel progresses, the other limbs are neatly cut from the rug—signaling to Adina that the Securitate are closing in. Still, she is never certain of what she might have done, what they might want from her.
With post–Cold War hindsight, many of Adina’s concerns seem dated, a great comfort to a contemporary reader unfamiliar with such a life. Yet the core of Fox, the visceral fear of surveillance that Adina faces, is pertinent in the modern, digital age—in America especially, where recent revelations...