Herta Müller (b. 1953)
Romanian-born German novelist, essayist, and poet, who was awarded the
Nobel Prize in Literature in 2009. Much of Herta Müller's fiction, written
in poetic, metaphorical style, draws on her experience of growing up and
living in the bleak atmosphere of a totalitarian state, in this case, in
"And then I have the feeling that whenever someone
dies he leaves behind a sack of words. And barbers, and nail-clippersI
always think of them, too, since the dead no longer need them. And they
don't ever lose buttons either." (from
The Land of Green Plums, 1994, transl. by
Herta Müller was born to a German family, in Nitzkydorf, a village in
the Banat, where as it was said with exaggersation that the only ethnic
Romanian in the village was the policeman. (In 1941, only a third of the
3000 villagers spoke Romanian.) During World War II, when the country was
occupied by Germany, Müller's father served in the Waffen SS. After the
war he worked as a truck driver. Müller's mother, Catarina, was deported
to a work-camp in the Soviet Union for five years. Her marriage was a result
of a necessity. "Ohne den Krieg hätte ich deinen Vater nie geheiratet,"
she later confessed to her daughter.
Müller studied German and Romanian in the university in Timosoara. While
at the university, Müller became acquainted with the Aktionsgruppe Banat,
made up of young writers of German language, among them Richard Wagner,
who was also a member of the Communist party. The group was accused of plotting
against the regime and one of its members, William Totok, was sent to prison.
Officially the group was banned after 1975, but it had an important role
in the development of opposition against the totalitarian nationalist-communist
Müller began writing after her father died. "I had to turn back and reflect
back upon my childhood, my mother, my father, my village," she later said.
From 1977 to 1979, Müller was employed as a translator at the tractor factory
Tehnometal, translating manuals for machines imported from the GDR, Austria
and Switzerland. Due to her refusal to cooperate with the Securitate, Ceausescu's
secret police, and serve as an informant, Müller was dismissed. A file was
opened on her, and eventually it consisted of three volumes and 914 pages.
To support herself, Müller worked as a teacher in a kindergarten and gave
private German lessons.
Labelled as a "parasitic element" (like Joseph Brodsky in the 1960s in
Leningrad), Müller became the target of repeated threats. Once she was accused
of having sex with eight Arab students in exchange for Western tights and
cosmetics. "I didn't know a single Arab student," Müller recalled in an
article, published in Die Zeit (July 2009), in which she told about
her long-lasting harassment.
Müller finished in 1979 the manuscript for Nadirs (Niederungen),
consisting of fourteen prose miniatures and the long title story, but it
took three years before the work appeared, in mutilated form. When the uncensored
version was smuggled to Germany and published there by Rotbuch-Verlag in
1984 with critical acclaim, Müller was not allowed to travel. After the
permission was granted, the secret service created a smear campaign against
her, spreading a rumor that she was, in fact, an agent for the Securitate.
Müller was also forbidden to publish in Romania. In 1987 Müller succeeded
in emigrating to Germany with Richard Wagner, who was her husband at the
time. Ceausescu's regime was overthrown in 1989 and the dictator himself
was hastily tried and executed with his wife. Müller has, however, argued,
that she was still under observation when she visited Romania twenty years
The community of Banat, with its traditional gender roles and old-fashioned
values, has fuctioned as a microcosmos of the whole repressive society in
Müller's early fiction. Noteworthy, Müller has refused to be classed as
a feminist writer, stating in an interview: "Ich bin keine Feministin. Ich
bin vielleicht eine Individualistin und ich bin eine Frau." The dark and
coldly intense Niederungen portrayed a dying Banat-Swabian village
from the point of view of a child. In this work Müller used the image of
the croaking frog as a metaphor for the German minority: "Everybody brought
a frog along when they immigrated." The Land of Green Plums (1994),
written after the death of Müller's two friends in suspicious circumstances,
was about a group of young people, whose friendship is destroyd by the deleterious
effects of a totalitarian society. Der Fuchs war damals schon der Jäger
(1992) depicted life in provincial Romania during the late 1980s. As in
her other stories, Müller is concerned in The Appointment (1997)
more with the private world of an isolated individual than the collective
experience. During a tram ride the thoughts of the narrator, a young factory
worker summoned to interrogation, turn and twist as unexpectedly as the
sudden twists and turns of the tram. To get out of the country, she has
sewn desperate messages into the linings of jackets bound for Italy, saying
"Marry me", with her name and address.
Traveling on One Leg (1989) presented the problems of adjustment
of Irene, a 30-year old Romanian-German immigrant, who is drawn into intimate
relationships with three men. "The action in this volume may be slight,
but Irene's innermost consciousness -- where the political has indeed become
the personal -- is magnificently portrayed." (William Ferguson,
The New York Times, February 21, 1999) In his own works Richard
Wagner has also written about his departure from Romania and arrival in
the West in the stories Ausreiseantrag (1988) and Begrüßungsgeld
(1989). Both feature the same characters, the disillusioned journalist called
Stirner, and his German-teacher-wife.
Müller has published lectures on writing, entitled Der Teufel sitzt
im Spiegel (1991), journalistic pieces (Eine warme Kartoffel ist
ein warmes Bett, 1992), essays (Hunger und Seide, 1995), the
experimental Der Wächter nimmt seinen Kamm: Vom Weggehen und Ausscheren
(1993), which played with the juxtaposition of text and illustration, and
the collage poem, Este sau nu este Ion (2005).
Besides the Nobel Prize, Müller has won numerous other literary awards,
including The Kleist Prize (1994), the European Union's Aristeion Prize
for Literature (1995), the International IMPAC Dublin Litetary Award (1998),
the Franz Kafka Prize (1999) and the literature prize of the Konrad Adenauer
Foundation (2004). In Germany, where Müller has settled in Berlin, she has
given lectures in several universities. In 1995 she was appointed member
of the German Academy for Language and Poetry, in Darmstadt, and in 2005
she held the Heiner-Müller Guest Professorship at the Free University.
For further reading: 'In
allem ist der Riss': Trauma, Fragmentation, and the Body in Herta Müller's
Prose and Collages, in The Modern Language
Review by Lyn Marven (April 4, 2006); Body
and Narrative in German Literature by Lyn Marven (2005); Herta
Müller, ed. by Thomas Daum (2003); Herta
Müller, ed. by Brigid Haines (1998);
Eine Poesie der Sinne: Herta Müllers Diskurs des Alleinseins und seine
Wurzeln by Herta Haupt-Cucuiu (1996)
"By paying careful attention to the slightest nuances of life in Romania the
book also gives an accurate description of what it was like to be alive
anywhere in Eastern Europe during the years of communism. (...) Miss Müller
has construced a novel that violates every rule of what was expected of
a novelist in communist Romania. It also might be said that the book goes
against nearly every expectation of what passes for a novel today in America.
It eschews plot. What is happening line by line, page by page, outweighs
any interest in what is going to happen next." Thomas McGonigle,
The Washington Times
"It is easy enough to capture totalitarian disfigurement in a cage of abstract
politics. What is harder and more unsettling is to let loose its demons
of the body, mind and soul. Herta Mueller does this. (...) This is a novel
of strong, spare poetry in translation. Again and again, its speech startles.
Then it quickly sounds just right, and it becomes hard to imagine there
might not have been a Herta Mueller to transcribe these urgent whispers."-
The Australian (10/2/1999)
"The Land of Green Plums is a novel of graphically observed detail
in which the author seeks to create a sort of poetry out of the spiritual
and material ugliness of life in Communist Romania. (...) Ms. Muller's vision
of a police state manned by plum thieves reads like a kind of fairy tale
on the mingled evils of gluttony, stupidity and brutality." Larry Wolff,
The New York Times Book Review (1/12/1996)
"Muller's true achievement lies not only in her superb evocation of Ceausescu's
Romania, but also in her recreation of the exile experience. After the characters
have escaped to Germany they still feel tormented by their previous lack
of freedom. The Land of the Green Plums avoids the cool irony of
much eastern European fiction." - Madeleine Byrne, Quadrant (6/1999)
""When we don't speak, said Edgar, we become unbearable, and when we do,
we make fools of ourselves." The words sum up the plight of Mueller's young
rebels, and also hint at the problems faced by anyone writing about past
and well-documented evils. Weird, allusive and confusing though the author's
way of tackling the subject may be, and a little heavy on symbols, she achieves
her end none the less. The Land of Green Plums (which has won the
1998 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award) is unnervingly claustrophobic."-
Times Literary Supplement (17/7/1998)
In the wake of atrocities perpetrated in the name of nation and race, individuals
were forced to form their identities not only without but against these
categories, erecting subtle defenses in the face of unrelenting oppression.
The novels of Romanian-born writer Herta Muller have brought this struggle
to life for ordinary men and women." -Jason M. Baskin, Chicago Review (Winter/2002)
"Her aspiration to purity, moral included, is like an inner sword, it's
as if she had a a sword instead of a spine, as in one of Kafka's dreams.
(...) The writings of Herta Müller are indeed the product of an intense
obsession, a unique, paranoid terror of being followed, held in suspicion,
persecuted, of having to fight a pervasive and incomprehensible enemy, which
is bent on defacing and and misrepresenting her. Her writing is Kafkaesque.
" - Mircea Cărtărescu,
With her individualistic style, the author turns the texts into prose poems.
The poetry clashes with details used to describe fear, for example, in suppressed
sexuality as a signum for the inability of communication in fascist Romania"-
Irena E. Furhoff, International Fiction Review 30/1-2 (2003)
"Müller creates a singular voice that is both brutally honest and dreadfully
sad. The observations are made with fearless simplicity, making the acrimonious
verbal assaults of the adult family members conspicuous and as painful to
the reader as they would be to a child. (...) Owing gratitude to Lugs splendid
translation, Nadirs is a grave, yet compellingly told series of vignettes
which should force readers to look as much within themselves as within the
text." - Brian Budzynski,
Contemporary Fiction (Spring/2000)
Herta Müller The Nobel Prize in Literature 2009
"Language has different eyes."
Telephone interview with Herta
Müller immediately following the announcement of the 2009 Nobel Prize in
Literature, 8 October 2009. The interview was recorded minutes after the
announcement and conducted in Müller's native German. The interviewer is
freelance journalist Marika Griehsel.
[Herta Müller] Hello ...
Translated from the German by Gloria Custance
[Marika Griehsel] Ms. Müller, congratulations. My name is Marika Griehsel
and I am calling from the Nobel Foundation's website offices. Again, our
[HM] Thank you.
[MG] You write in German, and you once said that writing is very important
to you, existential ...
[HM] Well, writing was the only thing where I could be myself, because under
the dictatorship ... and, well, it gave me something to hold on to ... but
actually it was not that important when I did work when I had a job
for I was always getting fired, from everywhere. And then I was subjected
to all this chicanery, continually; the interrogations and the persecution.
Sometimes the writing also appeared as though one were a bit crazy ... because
the country was so poor and one had witnessed such unhappiness and sometimes
one thought to oneself, well, in a way it really is ... these things have
no place in this world.
[MG] But it was somehow always what you did in order to see the other side,
[HM] So that I can nevertheless be certain that I am still myself, that
[MG] You went to live in Germany in 1987?
[MG] But you continue to write a lot about the old country ... why is that,
do you think?
[HM] Well, I think that the heavy weight ... that literature goes to where
the weight is. And I lived under this dictatorship for over thirty years
and that is where the injuries and the theme are ... I did not choose this
theme, the theme always seeks me out. This theme I shall not ... I am still
not rid of this theme. And one has to write about the things that occupy
one incessantly. And it's important, dictatorship ... for unfortunately
that dictatorship was not the very last. Regrettably, there are still so
many in the world.
[MG] When you started to write, for whom did you write, and whom do you
write for now?
[HM] Well, actually, I have always written only for myself. To clarify things,
to clarify things with myself, to understand in an inner way what is actually
happening. Or: What has become of me? I come from a very small village,
and then came the city, and there were always discontinuities and then I
was a minority, German ... and one didn't belong anyway. Then I had this
major conflict with my compatriots, with the German minority: they excommunicated
me, already when I wrote my first book, as someone who fouls their own nest,
so to speak, because I wrote about the situation with the involvement with
National Socialism, and about the archaic fossilized way of life in the
village, about its ethnocentrism. And they did not forgive me for that.
They wanted literature about their homeland, "Heimatliteratur", and they
felt that I, well that I compromised them. It is a very conservative minority
and thus I was excluded, and I was excluded from Romanian society for political
reasons. And then I came to Germany and here in Germany I was always the
Romanian, and in Romania I was always the German. So somehow one is always
the other ...
[MG] Yes, indeed. Is that important, do you think, that you felt you were
on the outside?
[HM] I don't know whether it's important. It's certainly something one can
do without. And sometimes it hurts. People want to belong in certain respects,
but it was as it was and I got used to it and at some point it was just
a matter of fact. And that's what it is. And, one can't force oneself upon
people and betray the way one thinks? If I don't belong because of what
I think and because of my opinions, then so be it. What can one do about
it? One can't bend over backwards or pretend to be someone else just to
belong. And in any case it doesn't work. Once you no longer belong, it's
[MG] Is literature for you ... writing ... does one have to be very honest?
[HM] Yes, one has to be honest with oneself. Through writing one experiences
something different to what one experiences with the five senses one has
because language is a different métier. And in writing one searches, and
that is what keeps one writing, that one sees and experiences things from
another angle entirely, one experiences oneself during the process of writing.
Writing itself does not know what it looks like while one is doing it, only
when it's finished. And as long as I am writing I am in safekeeping, then
I have some idea of how life could go on, and when I get to the end of a
text I don't know it anymore.
[MG] That sounds good. "Atemschaukel" [literally: breath swing/see-saw]
do you think it is difficult You have a group of people, Germans, who
were in prison; they were not very well-liked, were they? Nobody thought
about them after World War II was over ... what did you mean by that?
[HM] Yes, well, ... deportation after 1945 naturally had to do with the
Second World War ...
Oh, there's the door bell. It's utter madness here in the house ... they
are already at the front door ...
Well, they were deported in the name of collective guilt, the German minority
was involved; they were in the SS or the German army. Romania under Antonescu
was a fascist state ...
[HM] Be a bit quiet, otherwise I can't talk on the phone ... it's a
friend of mine ... oh, I can't understand you ...
[MG] O.K. I think the big party is about to start just quickly: you said
it was collective guilt, just quickly.
[HM] Yes, and in my opinion collective guilt is always unjust because the
people who were deported were not in the war back then. The deportations
took place already in January 1945, but the war didn't end until May. My
father was in the SS, he had not even returned from the front. And so they
took civilians, took really young people, 17-year-olds like Oskar Pastior,
who were personally not guilty, and Romania was also a fascist state with
Antonescu on Hitler's side and it only changed sides at the last minute,
or was made to change sides, because the Soviets made Romania change sides.
And that also made the German minority stubborn about reflecting on their
involvement with National Socialism, because the Romanians were also all
at Stalingrad with Antonescu, and afterwards, after 1945, only the minorities
were held responsible. The Hungarian minority with Horthy, Horthy's followers
and the Germans as the supporters of Hitler, but that the entire population
of Romania at that time was on the side of Nazi Germany, afterwards, after
1945, history was falsified.
Yes, my mother was also deported, for five years. But I tried to see these
things in context. If Nazi Germany had not committed such crimes, there
would have been no deportation. One must always keep this in mind. It didn't
just come out of nowhere. But it was a consequence of the crimes in which
the minority was involved of course.
[MG] What do you think, your books will also be translated into Romanian.
How will your reception be there?
[HM] Well, it will vary. In general the books are well received. But that's
just one side. Probably if someone selects a book to review, they perhaps
quite like it. But in Romanian society I am not particularly well-liked.
I don't often receive invitations. Because still today I have too many negative
things to say about the conditions in Romania, because that is what it's
like. Because the entire old nomenklatura and the secret service have divided
up all the positions in the country between them. And that is an entire
network. They help themselves and help each other. And that is also an explanation
of why corruption is all-pervasive in Romania. Regrettably, Romania is still
quite a long way away from democracy.
They don't like to hear that in Romania. That is an everlasting problem.
Those in exile should hold their tongues, and then they also say that I
don't know anything about it anymore.
[MG] Your language is German but you also have Romanian influences ... how
does this make itself apparent?
[HM] Well, that is my native tongue, German. I learned Romanian very late,
when I was fifteen, in town, and I wanted to learn it. I like the language
very much. Romanian is a very beautiful, sensual, poetic language. And from
that moment onward it was perhaps good that I learned it so late because
then I had an eye for it I realised just how rich Romanian is in imagery,
what marvellous metaphors there are, the common metaphors that people use
every day, in superstitions or ... in expressions, many things are contradictory,
or the names of plants, that they are called something completely different
than in German. That is then a different look at the same thing ... I have
always seen that there are two stations, the one is the station on my language
for something, and the other is this other station. It is not only a different
word, it is a different view. Language has different eyes. In my case Romanian
always writes with me, also when I am not writing in Romanian, because I
have it in my head.
And I have two views from the other language, they are always there. I frequently
don't know which one it is from which I am writing.
[MG] Which works of yours do you recommend we read first?
[HM] I don't know. Well, in German I would of course recommend my last book.
One is always closest to the last work. "Die Atemschaukel".
[MG] "Die Atemschaukel". Well, the publicity now will be tremendous; how
do you feel about that?
[HM] Well, I don't know what to say.
[HM] One is not a different person. All this has actually nothing to do
with the writing itself. I am happy now, but I shall remain down to earth.
So I shall file this away for the time being. And in two or three days it
will hit home. I know it in this moment, but I still don't believe it. I
can't realise it. It has to be that way. I don't know why I deserve such
happiness. I sometimes think that happiness has erred. Perhaps I don't deserve
it at all. Why am I entitled to so much happiness?
[MG] Ms. Müller, many, many, thanks, and congratulations ...
[HM] I thank you. All the best.
[MG] All the best to you. Thank you very much, bye.