Herta Müller

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Herta Müller

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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 Ceausescu's Romania.

"And then I have the feeling that whenever someone dies he leaves behind a sack of words. And barbers, and nail-clippers—I 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 Michael Hofmann)

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 system.

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 later.

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."- Bernard Lane, 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."- D.J.Enright, 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 Lug’s 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, Review of Contemporary Fiction (Spring/2000)

Herta Müller thumb picture

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 ...

[Marika Griehsel] Ms. Müller, congratulations. My name is Marika Griehsel and I am calling from the Nobel Foundation's website offices. Again, our warmest congratulations...

[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, wasn't it?

[HM] So that I can nevertheless be certain that I am still myself, that I exist.

[MG] You went to live in Germany in 1987?

[HM] Yes.

[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 over.

[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.

[MG] (laughs)

[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.

Translated from the German by Gloria Custance

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