The 2009 Nobel Prize for Literature, in which bets were on Amos Oz or Philip Roth, shocked the world—again. The cries of “Jean-Marie Le what?” greeting Le Clézio’s 2008 selection were replaced in Britain and the United States by a chorus of “Herta who?” and “Not another unknown European!” Well, for once our stupefaction is not simply a consequence of our notorious Anglocentrism. Fully five of Herta Müller’s more than twenty works of fiction, poetry and essays had already been translated into English, against a mere three into French.
And yet the choice of an uncomfortable, marginal author like Müller, writing about life under the dictatorship she escaped from in 1987, bears a message that’s significant for the United States and Britain, countries that sailed relatively complacently through the storms of the past century. It recalls how recently most of Europe was a vortex of violence to rival the exotic places we prefer to read about in works of translation, if we must read them at all. To award the prize to a still-young veteran of European totalitarianism, whose work further shows the continuity of its structures and effects, is a radical choice. It does not exactly celebrate the liberal-democratic victory over communism, because there’s no happy end to the story. Somewhat like the Austrian Elfriede Jelinek (“unknown” Nobel laureate, 2004), Müller avoids psychological and social realism, projecting nightmare visions onto an affectless screen of language, and ultimately depicting abuse, guilt and trauma not as historical-political contingencies but as the very condition of the contemporary psyche.
Multiple identities and the specter of ethnic cleansing are the more commodifiable aspects of Müller’s universalism. She was born in 1953 in a farming village of the Banat, a region of Central Europe richly layered by invasive cultures over the past millennium. After it came under Habsburg rule in 1716, Catholic Germanic settlers were invited to repopulate the land, and these immigrants created monolingual communities like Müller’s native Nitzkydorf. In 1919 the areas around the Banat’s capital city of Timisoara joined Romania, but the ethnic Germans—”Banat Swabians”—resisted assimilation. Despising the Romanians, they were ignored in return until catastrophe arrived with the Red Army. Persecution intensified under Ceausescu, who came to power in 1965; deportations, expropriations and emigrations reduced their number from around 250,000 at their peak in 1900 to some 20,000 today.
In light of this insular ethnic German background, an aphorism by the Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran seems relevant: “One doesn’t live in a country, one lives in a language.” But this is as paradoxical in Müller’s case as in that of the many Romanian intellectuals who lived in two languages, the other usually French, including Cioran himself, along with Eugène Ionesco, Tristan Tzara, Panait Istrati and George Enescu. Müller came to writing through four languages. As she has put it with reference to the Aktionsgruppe Banat, the close-knit group of young writers and dissidents she hung with during her student days: “In Timisoara, the language of writing co-existed with the dialect (Swabian) and the lingua franca (Romanian). To this was added the political cant of the regime, which distorted language to its own advantage. Hence our care to avoid any words and concepts that had been violated or sullied by politics…. To write about our reality, we had always to search for an innocent language.”