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.”
A hopeless quest, as Müller acknowledged in her Nobel acceptance speech: “In writing, it is not a matter of trusting, but rather of the honesty of the deceit.” Still, the attempt is patent in the arduous novelty of the language, overwrought yet deadpan, a succession of phenomenological statements whose relation to one another and to reality is left hanging. Questions lack question marks; emotions refuse to flag themselves with any facile change of tone or pace. Take this paragraph from her first book, Nadirs (1982), touching on the frequent theme of maternal indifference:
Mother is still standing on the long ladder. The rungs are flattening out the soles of her feet. The soles of my mother’s feet are right above me. She squashes my face. Mother stands on my eyes and pushes them in. Mother stomps my pupils into the white of my eyes. Mother has dark blue mulberry stains on the soles of her feet.
The literary voice is flattened by mistrust of rhetoric and cliché in the clandestine effort to reconstruct the self. As we read this harrowing Autofiktion, especially the early pieces, we must keep in mind certain experiences that were “total,” as in totalitarian: it was impossible, it seems, to intuit other modes of psychic or civic existence. And it wasn’t just a matter of communism.
Müller’s village upbringing is evoked in the fourteen vignettes and eponymous long text that constitute Nadirs. They convey a frightening place of inarticulate, incestuous families, petty powers and casual cruelty, reminiscent of rural backwardness in Zola, Thomas Bernhard or Flannery O’Connor, but with a sensuous venom that recalls Baudelaire’s prose poems. Death stalks human doings, decay trumps rebirth in nature, sex is grotesque and the child is already cowed and guilty. “You look at the ground, you see your bloody shoes walking far off and alone, and fear winds itself through the hovering white plumage of the faded dandelions.” When Nadirs appeared in “expurgated” form (one wonders which passages were left in) her village was furious, and the authorities began to take a serious interest in Müller all over again. By this time she had already undergone the harassment that informs The Land of Green Plums (1993) and The Appointment (1997), though she felt able to write about it only after she got to Berlin.
The harassment amounted to psychological torture. Not content with repeated interrogations (a creepy blend of mellifluous sadism and Alice in Wonderland logic, best rendered in The Appointment), the secret police, or Securitate, melted in and out through the walls of her apartment, playfully leaving signs of their presence such as cigarette butts or displaced furniture. There were death threats; Müller was smeared as an agent of the state; friends, always possible agents themselves, sometimes turned up dead, classed as suicides. How to write about such things? Müller’s response to a world in which nothing has a reliable meaning is to say and not say: to sow clues, to fragment chronology and bodies, to suppress connections while stringing elusive links across the text, as if to build alternative organisms inhabiting a samizdat reality beyond the pervasive reach of an internalized surveillance. In The Land of Green Plums, for instance, barbers and nail clippers abound; acts of pruning, snipping and mowing crop up throughout. But it’s not just an imagery of repression, mirrored in fits of self-harm. Müller once wanted to be a hairdresser, and her attraction to sundering, dispersing and rearranging elements has found expression in a parallel practice of collage-poems that bears on her obsession with words as material, talismanic objects.
Words can also be renovated by cross-linguistic layering. Müller learned Romanian as an adolescent, and the metaphors of that language—full of animal symbology, like the country’s popular fables—mate with her mother tongue to produce strange hybrids. Such operations get lost in English, of course, and even Germans are stumped by the repeated comparison of man to a pheasant in The Passport (1986). To understand its resonance for that bitter story of escape, one needs to know that the flightless Romanian pheasant is an emblem of frustration. The Land of Green Plums is originally titled Hertzier, a neologism cued by the closeness in Romanian of inima (heart) and animala. Translator Michael Hofmann offers “heart-beast” for “Hertzier” in the text: the heart as an unruly entity inside the ribs, as in a cage. In The Appointment, a father is dreamed being neatly cut open so that the stunted melon-wife in his chest can be replaced by his mistress in the form of a peach. Müller’s transformational poetics solidifies emotions and thoughts into discrete objects, while objects, in turn, become animate or personified. Discovering that her best friend has betrayed her, the narrator explains,
I saw Tereza in pieces: two little eyes, a long neck, pudgy fingers. Time stood still; Tereza should go but she should leave her face here, because I missed it so. She showed me the scar under her arm where they’d cut out the nut. I wanted to take the scar in my hand and stroke it, without Tereza. I wanted to rip my love out of me, throw it on the floor and stamp on it. Quickly lie down where it was lying and let it crawl back through my eyes into my head.
The Land of Green Plums is based on Müller’s life as a student and a translator in a factory. It begins with the narrator’s fascinated dislike of a fellow student cornered into prostitution, then suicide, a kind of “there but for the grace of…” scenario; it stages the primal ethical scene, recounted in several articles and speeches, in which Müller was sacked for refusing to spy on her friends; it mourns the narrator’s beloved co-worker Tereza, who finally spied on her. After meeting three German-Romanian boys the narrator engages in nebulous subversion, hiding the smuggled books that set the four apart, both from their origins—”The books were in our mother tongue, but the silence of the villages, which forbids thought, wasn’t in them”—and from the wider culture, which was a peasant one in proletarian disguise. The country people “had said to themselves, no more sheep, no more melons. Like fools, they had gone chasing after the soot of the city,” but all their “crude” hands can produce are “tin sheep” and “wooden melons.” One of the intellectuals, Kurt, is banished to a distant slaughterhouse, where he is repulsed by his co-workers’ addiction to drinking blood and by his own complicity in it. Dispersed, the group communicates through coded letters that are intercepted by the sinister interrogator Pjele, an almost supernatural personage with a dog avatar also called Pjele.
This surreal account of a strangled life in which friends try to preserve enclaves of dignity while forced into deceit and compromise cuts periodically back to the menacing landscapes of Nadirs. Such scenes are even grimmer, to my mind. Governments can change, but the strictures of an archaic Catholicism seem to have already damaged this child—while the adults appear stunted by a combination of the same dour tradition, plus history. Somewhere at the root of things, we are given to understand in Müller’s elliptical way, lies her father’s guilt as an SS officer in the war. “Father keeps the graveyards deep in his throat, between his collar and his chin, near his Adam’s apple. His Adam’s apple sticks out and is locked up. That way the graveyards can never pass his lips.” Many of the Banat Swabians followed their ethnic allegiances to join the Wehrmacht, and a terrible price was exacted when they lost: in 1945 tens of thousands were deported to concentration camps in the Ukraine, Müller’s mother among them.
And yet the timelessness of this benighted patriarchal society, with its corrosive effects on men, women and children, impresses us beyond the historical incidents. The Passport, about a German-Romanian miller trying to bribe his way out of the country and selling his daughter to do so, paints in lush, cryptic strokes a picture of misogyny and corruption that could apply to many a village, in any century, under any political system. In this sense Müller’s indictments go beyond the denunciation of communism to question the very essence of vertical authority structures, beginning with religion. Last December she told an interviewer from Le Monde, recalling how she dared not commit the sin of undressing for a swim when out with the cows, that she thought God was watching. “At catechism, they used to tell us: ‘God is everywhere.’ In fact he was the first dictator!”
God is watching, the regime is watching, you are watching your back. Müller’s oeuvre might be summed up as a writing of (justified) paranoia, which makes the reader an accomplice in watchfulness. The spies try to guess what the character’s comings and goings might mean, the character tries to guess if that red car parked outside means anything, and the reader tries to guess at what lies unspoken between the sentences. As in collage or poetry, causality and consequence must remain concealed: it’s an interrogator who says triumphantly, “You see, things are getting connected.” Müller’s great achievement is to make paranoia textually palpable. Importantly, Traveling on One Leg (1992)—based on her arrival in Germany in 1987—takes reticence to extremes. The text is obstinately, hermetically visual, the protagonist always engaged in defensive seeing:
Every day there were five workers on the scaffold.
Irene had picked one, the one with the bandanna and shoulder-length hair. He was the one she watched.
Irene didn’t want to know more than she saw about him. She saw him participating in the noise on the scaffold. He raised his arms and lowered them.
People expect refugees arriving in “free” societies to be healed in an instant, to dump their baggage and turn into grateful models of resilience, making a new life for themselves by doing our dirty work. But exile is a further trauma for many, involving loss and alienation, a new backdrop to old instilled fears. Irene sees no cause to relax in the West (her Admission Facility officer resembles an interrogator), and among the things she sees are loneliness, neurotic shopping and a covert authoritarianism: Berlin might turn into “the other country” overnight. Above all, she has brought the struggle against madness with her. One strategy is to make pictorial collages, as Müller did before turning to word collages. Lyn Marven has observed that these collages have enabled a gradual bifurcation of the work: the parataxical impulse reserved for the poetic disposition of individual words that “stare at me,” Müller says, from newspapers, and the prose thereby released for a more articulated, expansive narrative, where the unsaid finally breathes through.
The Appointment revisits themes like the shadow play of suspicion, the uses of sex in the perversion of desire and the violence of the state (a border killing; the second great deportation, to the Baragan Plain in 1951). But by Müller’s standards The Appointment is a declarative, transparent text—and an unexpectedly humorous one. It revolves around the narrator’s tram journey toward an appointment with her regular interrogator, Albu. She speculates about the other passengers in between thinking about her husband, Paul, a sweet, clumsy drunk, and mulling over her precarious life. Resistance to fear is no longer embodied in the opacity of language, so much as in the creative imagination of the heroine and others surviving on a knife-edge, with a total lack of socialist solidarity: there are hypocritical party meetings, ingenious scams and general skiving off. After losing her job for putting marriage proposals into the pockets of suits she sewed for the Italian market, or “prostitution in the workplace,” the narrator realizes that hardly anyone else goes to work:
Unlike me, they are all paid to run around, having made up stories of burst pipes, illness, or funerals to tell the boss, and even bask in the sympathy of their colleagues and superiors before setting off on their outing. Just once I had my grandfather die because I wanted to buy a pair of gray platform shoes…. I lied, went into town, bought the shoes, and then the lie came true. Four days later at dinner my grandfather fell from his chair, dead. When the telegram arrived early the next morning, I took my three-day-old gray platforms and held them under the tap to make them swell. I put them on, went to the office and said I’d need the next two days off since my kitchen was flooded. Whenever I tell a bad lie, it comes true.
Being superstitious, she decides to save lying for the interrogations but keeps herself sane with counting games—little protective spells that merely recast the compulsion to scrutinize appearances and interpret signs, which is the given of life under dictatorship. Her stories are relayed in a voice so beguiling in its innocence, ditziness and occasional well-aimed rudeness that this chronicle of dread flies on joyous energy. After a tough session with Albu, the narrator flings herself to the ground in the park. “I couldn’t have cared less if I’d been lying below the grass, dead, I would have welcomed it, and at the same time I liked living so damned much. I wanted to have a good cry and instead wound up laughing myself silly.” Is it significant that Müller has finally stepped into the skin of a Romanian narrator? This is certainly the most attractive character she’s created, making the discovery that occurs at the end of the tram ride doubly, unspeakably, horrifying—proof that even if the writing has become warmer, this artist will not succumb to the sentimentality of post-’89 fantasies (like that wishful German film about a spy with a heart, The Lives of Others). Müller makes clear that it’s impossible, even for her “good” protagonists, not to be deformed by the system.
Müller should not be expected to change the subject anytime soon. She knows that the new Romania is run by the same old Securitate, still keeping its eye on her, as she found on recent trips. In Germany too she’s an outsider, with her Romanian-scented dialect, filtered into literary German. Her journey from a farm bereft of books to Oslo confounds expectations. Her art is equally unplaceable: part therapy, part history, part formal experimentation. It’s a continual testing of language between the originary “silence of the villages” and the cant of every regime—Müller is no less wary of liberal ideologies, whether feminism or individualism. Better, perhaps, to embody concepts, to materialize emotions and magically turn the flux of discursive realities into a cache of objects, achieving what her narrator only imagines: “Instead of these thoughts we’re constantly mulling over, it would be better to have the actual things inside your head, so you could reach in and touch them.” The care for looking and touching situates this author, if anywhere, among the dispossessed and the exiles, down in the poetic realm of the concrete particular, which is the only real source of universality. It’s a lonely writing of vigilance that reminds us to keep our eyes wide open.