Herta Müller
Respected Outsider

The writer Herta Müller received the 2009 Nobel Prize for Literature; © Paul Esser
The writer Herta Müller received the 2009 Nobel Prize for Literature | Photo (detail): © Paul Esser

Her themes are the abysmal aspects of state terror and dictatorship, which she writes about in an unconventionally poetic language. Herta Müller transforms external events into internal worlds where readers have to find their own way. The Romanian-German writer was awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize for Literature.

Herta Müller is small and fine-boned, but this should not be confused with fragile. Although she speaks softly, she is well able to make herself heard. She discusses serious topics, but is definitely not lacking in humour. One thing is certain: she prefers writing to public appearances, which is why she made no secret of the fact that the period following the award of the Nobel Prize in 2009 exhausted her. As she explained at the time, not being able to work for months was not really her thing, but she got through it nevertheless.

Life in opposition

Living as a Romanian-German under the repressive measures of the communist regime of Nicolai Ceausescu may well have been what has made Herta Müller so resilient. She was born in 1953 to a former member of the SS in the German-speaking region of Banat in Romania. In the late 1970s, Müller, who worked as a translator, lost her job in a factory because she was unwilling to get involved in spying for the Romanian secret service, the Securitate. Later she explained that she was unable to do the secret service people the favour of taking her life. Instead she began to write, and joined the opposition movement. She claims she resorted to writing because she knew of no other way of helping herself “when the harassment became more and more unbearable”. From 1985 onwards, she did her utmost to acquire an exit permit.

Two years later she was allowed to leave the country. She came to the Federal Republic of Germany and has lived here since, in Berlin. She recalls how important it was for the German authorities that she was a Romanian-German, whereas she herself considered herself to be a political refugee. The writer says that she did not feel welcome in West Germany. “I would like to have gone somewhere else, to some other country, but no one accepted me,” she said in 2012 in connection with the debate about a German Museum of Exile, a project which she launched and promotes with the quiet assertiveness so typical of her.

Against a world of conformists

She has always been politically involved – during the war in Kosovo, for example. Non-partisan in the traditional sense, she is strictly on the side of the oppressed. She combines sobriety with morality, and with incorruptibility. The way she wrote about the young rural people in Banat, in her debut publication Nadirs in the early 1980s, not only drew the attention of the Securitate to her, it also alienated her from those Romanian-Germans who preferred to look back with melancholy. Nostalgia was never Herta Müller’s thing: “Mr Wultschmann recalls the time of the Second World War. Those were the days, says Mr Wultschmann.”

Herta Müller’s first novel, Der Fuchs war damals schon der Jäger (Evan back then, the fox was the hunter, 1992) describes the atmosphere towards the end of the Ceausescu regime, with its network of informers and its deprivations. In The Land of Green Plums, two years later, Müller writes, with a hint of autobiography, about the failed attempts by young Romanian-Germans to conform or, vice versa, to resist a world of conformists. “A few years after Hitler, they were all crying for Stalin. … Since then, they have been helping Ceausescu build graveyards.” The great success of both these books – in addition to numerous other volumes of prose and essays – has so far only been surpassed by Everything I possess I carry with me (2009), Herta Müller’s great novel about the abduction of thousands of Romanian-German men and women to Soviet labour camps after the Second World War. With it she took up a chapter in history repressed in both Germany and in Romania and clothed it in her wilful language. She does not idealise the horror, but instead finds apt words for it: the “hunger angel”, for example, rules over the “skin-and-bone time” spent imprisoned in the camp.

Patient seeker and finder of words

Herta Müller is a patient seeker of formulae which are as precise as they are poetic. She transforms external events into internal worlds where readers have to find their own way. Although political themes dominate her writing, her books are never primarily confessional documents or reports on experiences. She likes to be brief, and her prose is always close to poetry. In her collages, mostly excised from newspaper texts, she is a word finder, most recently in the volume Vater telefoniert mit den Fliegen (Father’s on the phone with the flies, 2012). This method of writing and her experience of dictatorship bound her closely to the Romanian-German poet Oskar Pastior, who died in 2006 at the age of 78. Everything I possess I carry with me is based on the poet’s personal history. That Pastior, for his part, had agreed to work for the Securitate, a fact which came to light in 2010, is one of the tragic twists in contemporary German literature. “My initial reaction was fright. It was a slap in the face, also anger,” writes Herta Müller. “My second reaction was commiseration. And the more I examine the details, the more it becomes sorrow.”

Herta Müller is the opposite of a repressor. For her, the past is far from being over. This makes her an outsider, albeit a highly respected one.