German Authors and Genres

Poetry and Labor Camp: Literature Nobel Laureate Herta Müller

Herta Müller; © Annette Pohnert / Carl Hanser VerlagHerta Müller; © Annette Pohnert / Carl Hanser VerlagThematically incarcerated in the dictatorial past of her homeland Romania, Herta Müller’s novels and poems live from the poetry of their German mother tongue. On December 10, 2009, the fifty-six year-old author received the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Herta Müller has got used to living in upper floors. Even in Berlin-Friedenau the author, born in 1953 in the Romanian town of Nitzkydorf to German-speaking Banat Swabians, follows this ritual. It began at a time when the Romanian secret police, the Securitate, used to come to the homes of suspects to rummage through their personal belongings or to murder critics of the regime by order of the dictator Nicolae Ceauçescu.

“We’re nearby, time is short”

Cover of “Atemschaukel”; © Carl Hanser VerlagEven after moving to West Berlin in 1987, and even after Ceauçescu’s fall, Müller and her then husband Richard Wagner received murder threats over the phone. “We’re nearby, time is short” was the message. “Stop now if you want to live.” The German Federal Intelligence Service advised her to stop going for walks in parks at night, never to go to the flats of strangers and never to “live on the ground floor”.

Even if the anonymous threats have now ceased, Müller still lives in the shadow of the past. “Mistrust”, she says in her most recent novel Everything I Possess I Carry with Me (Atemschaukel, 2009), which again sets poetic language against state terror, “grows higher than any wall”.

Omnipresence of terror

Cover of “Der Fuchs war damals schon der Jäger”; © Carl Hanser VerlagIf Müller dwells in the upper reaches of her language, she has set her themes in the dark cellar of the dictatorship. No wonder: the horrors of totalitarianism have pursued her since childhood. Her father was a violent-tempered SS man whom she feared; her mother was a Volksdeutsche, an ethnic German, whom the Soviets deported and sentenced to five years forced labor in a labor camp. Müller received her Christian name from a friend of her mother who starved to death in the camp.

Cover of “Der König verneigt sich und tötet”; © Carl Hanser VerlagIn high school Müller was already an informal member of the authors’ group “Banat”. In 1979 she lost her job as translator at an engineering factory when she refused to work as a spy for the Securitate. She began writing “when I no longer knew how else to help myself, when the chicaneries against me became more and more unbearable”. Her debut novel, Nadirs (Niederungen, 1982), about the harrowing rural life of the Banat Swabians, was allowed to appear only in a censored version – and gave her the reputation among her compatriots of someone who runs down her own people.

Even when Müller, worn down by interrogations and “driven into reclusion”, left Romania for West Germany in the winter of 1987, with two suitcases on a tractor, the vituperations didn’t cease. “Her books should be burned and she should be thrown into prison”, said one letter.

Wounds of history, wonder of stories

Cover of “Der Mensch ist ein großer Fasan der Welt”; © Carl Hanser VerlagFor fifteen years Ceauçescu’s henchmen and their successors “made me the object of a manhunt”, Müller was to write in 2003 in her volume of essays entitled Der König verneigt sich und tötet (i.e., The King Bows and Kills): an experience that has never let go of her. This may be pointed out to critics that repeatedly call for the author to acknowledge her new homeland with a novel about the German present.

The savagery of the death camp, the corruption of the state apparatus, the individual traumas that drove people to madness in an inhuman despotism – these remain the blood-red threads running through Müller’s works, beginning with her first book published in Germany, The Passport (Der Mensch ist ein großer Fasan auf der Welt, 1986) and the novel Even Back Then, The Fox Was the Hunter (Der Fuchs war schon immer der Jäger, 1992) to The Appointment (Heute wäre ich mir lieber nicht begegnet, 1997) and now Everything I Possess I Carry with Me (Atemschaukel, 2009).


Cover of “Heute wäre ich mir lieber nicht begegnet”; © Carl Hanser VerlagThe language with which Müller seeks to master the horror reaches into lyric hyperbole. Former Minister of Culture Michael Naumann (SPD) once called this a “faith in the liberating magic of the written word”: Müller’s books are “spiked with rare, older words, like those in passports”. Whoever no longer trusts the official language of the state apparatus must give voice to the horror with his own language.

Nowhere is this more striking than in Müller’s surreal-grotesque, cut-and-paste poetry: those patchwork collages of poetry books A Lady Lives in the Hair Knot (Im Haarknoten wohnt eine Dame, 2001) and The Pale Gentlemen with Their Expresso Cups (Die blassen Herren mit den Mokkatassen, 2005) which consist of snipped out and newly stuck together words from newspapers and in which naive idyll is annihilated by state terror with the stroke of the pen. “In the feather house lives a cock”, one of the poems goes, “a hare lives in the fur house / in the water house a lake / in the corner house – the patrol / pushes someone from the balcony / over the elder tree / then it was another suicide” (Im Federhaus wohnt ein Hahn / ein Hase wohnt im Fellhaus / im Wasserhaus ein See / im Eckhaus – die Patrouille / stößt einen vom Balkon dort / über dem Hollunder / dann war es wieder Selbstmord).

The ghosts of the past remain

Cover of “Die blassen Herren mit den Mokkatassen”; © Carl Hanser VerlagEverything I Possess I Carry with Me is also permeated by the power of poetic words. “Skinandbonestime” (“Hautundknochenzeit”) is such a word, “daylightpoisoning” (“Tageslichtvergiftung”) another – or “Hungerangel” (“Hungerengel”), a coinage of Oskar Pastiors’s, who, like Müller’s mother, spent five years in a Ukrainian labor camp and with whom Müller intended to write the book, until his death in 2006 forced a change of plans.

In Everything I Possess I Carry with Me literature forms the very basis of existence: when during the Stalin era the German-speaking, seventeen year-old Romanian Leopold Auberg is sent to a labor camp, he packs his humble belongings in a gramophone crate converted into a suitcase – “the clothbound Faust, the Zarathustra, the slender Weinheber and the collection of eight centuries of lyric poetry”. Again and again it is his private language that gives a poetic visage to the mixture of daily fear, constant hunger and continual exhaustion: “I’ll eat a short sleep”.

Labor in the slag pit wears Auberg down; after his release, he is “locked up in myself”. The words of the protagonist’s grandmother that keep him alive (“I know you’ll come back”) cannot prevent his alienation from his homeland. Whoever wants to survive and continue to survive, believes Müller, must constantly seek to write against the ghosts of the past.

And so Herta Müller’s next book will probably also circle round her quintessential theme. And she will continue to live in the higher storeys.

Thomas Köster
The author is one of the two heads of Südpol-Redaktionsbüros Köster & Vierecke. In addition, he is a cultural and science journalist (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Süddeutsche Zeitung, NZZ am Sonntag, Westdeutscher Rundfunk). He lives in Cologne..

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner.

Copyright: Goethe-Institut Online-Redaktion
December 2009

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