The Lonely Passion of Herta Müller

By Anna Porter
Queen’s Quarterly, 2010

A sense of outrage that everyone felt, endured, and never mentioned is at the core of Muller’s writing — her fiction, her essays, and often even her poetry. The Securitate, the ubiquitous Romanian state security service, enforcer of Ceausescu’s reign of terror, is the beast that lurks and struts in these novels.

It’s September 17, 2010, and a crowd of about 200 book lovers have gathered in the spacious, shaded garden of Berlin’s Literaturhaus (Literature House). It is chilly and damp, but no one seems to mind. They barely touch their complimentary wine and ignore the tastefully arranged nibblies. The occasion is the official opening of the Herta Muller exhibition.

Herta Muller is a major celebrity, poet, novelist, essayist, winner of some twenty literary prizes, including the 1998 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the Kleist Prize, the Kafka Prize, the 2009 Franz Werfel Human Rights Award–and the crowning glory of the 2009 Nobel Prize for Literature.

The fact that she was awarded the Nobel Prize as a German writer raised eyebrows both in Germany and in her native Romania. Here, she was criticized for not being German enough, for her overly lyrical language, as much as for her too plain descriptions, and for her tendency to invent words that stop the reader in mid-sentence, puzzling over what she meant. Words such as Atemschaukel, the title of her current book, meaning “breathswing,” “hungerangel,” “sunshinepoisoning,” “potatoman.” Some critics declared that her writing was foreign. Others praised it as a curious throwback to the way German used to be spoken in the old, vanished Austro-Hungarian Empire. Die Tageszeitung grudgingly declared that “at its core this is not a prize for German-language literature, but rather for a literature that uncompromisingly translates historical reality into language.”

Her novels reveal life behind the Iron Curtain of Ceausescu’s Romanian dictatorship. In Romania, critics were ready to welcome her as one of their own, despite the fact that she received the award as a German writer. In the Banat region, where Herta Muller comes from, everybody spoke German. This small, tenacious minority clings to its language and traditions.

Those of her books that I have read are all painfully realistic and horrifying with their accumulations of daily humiliations, deprivations, and the overwhelming sense of fear shared by all.

The Passport, its setting a small village in the mountains, is haunted by a simple man’s determination to escape the hopelessness of his birthplace. His desire to move to the West traps him and those close to him in horrific acts of self-degradation to please the authorities who have the power to grant this wish. Muller was born in such a village. After her first attempt to obtain a passport, she, too, was interrogated and threatened. Her first book, Nadirs, was published in an eviscerated edition in Romania in 1982.

In The Appointment, a young woman working in a factory that manufactures clothing for export sews notes into the linings of men’s suits asking the prospective wearer to “Marry me.” The first two sentences of the novel deliver a one-two punch of foreboding: “I’ve been summoned. Thursday, at ten sharp.” As the narrative unfolds, she reveals that her best friend was killed by the Securitate, that she suspects other friends are informants, that she cannot even hold onto her love for the man she lives with. Her every day has been invaded by the interrogator who plants nauseatingly wet kisses on her fingertips. Much like the young woman in The Appointment, Herta Muller was betrayed by fellow workers, interrogated, and threatened by Securitate agents, and lost her job as a translator in a factory when she refused to become an informant.

In The Land of Green Plums, her most accessible book in its English translation, a group of friends is tom apart by the Securitate’s efforts to force them to rat on one another. Muller’s own group of university friends — the “Aktionsgruppe Banat” (writers, all) — failed to resist the dictatorship’s urge to uniformity, to accepting as normal the wanton indignities, the everyday humiliations of living in a state-controlled world of spies. A sense of outrage that everyone felt, endured, and never mentioned is at the core of Muller’s writing — her fiction, her essays, and often even her poetry. The Securitate, the ubiquitous Romanian state security service, enforcer of Ceausescu’s reign of terror, is the beast that lurks and struts in these novels.

Each book traps the reader in the nonsensical world of a dictatorship that exercises absolute control over its subjects, to no particular end other than to establish that it has the power to do so, that its whims must be wholly accepted, and that to try to escape it is futile and probably fatal. In The Land of Green Plums, as in the other books, a few try to escape to the West and are killed in the attempt. Herta Muller herself succeeded in fleeing Romania in 1987.

Her more than twenty books are all for sale in the Literaturhaus’s shop, and several guests in the garden are already clutching their purchases, hoping for autographs. Today there will be none.

Most guests stand through Ernest Wichner’s long introduction (he is the director of the Literaturhaus, and he had been Oskar Pastior’s publisher) and wait for the star to rise to her feet. In the garden the talk was not of literature but of the power of coercion, of betrayal and the potential for forgiveness. Pastior was the German-Romanian poet whose life served as inspiration for Herta Muller’s most recent book, Atemschaukel. The English title will be Everything I Own I Carry with Me.

The German media have been feasting on Muller’s discovery that her beloved friend and guide through the horrors of the gulag had also been an informant for the Securitate.

She is a small woman in black, with short-cut, raven hair (even the style reminds one of a raven’s curled-under pointy wings), pale face, arched eyebrows, thin lips outlined in dark red. She glances at her audience when she stands up. She has amazingly light blue eyes. She manages to seem at once vulnerable and defiant. She speaks softly and too briefly. Of the saving grace of living in words, even before she could write: of her love of the spoken word, and of her compulsion to encompass in words the horrors that life presented. “When I write, I clutch at the love of words.” Words offered her protection against the dry realities of her childhood. Then she mentions her friend, Oskar Pastior.

She does not apologize for her trust in him. She says her immediate reaction to the news about Pastior was understanding. After five years in the gulag, Pastior had yearned only for a chance to “to take control of his own life,” but he was robbed of even that small token of liberty. In an earlier interview she had said, “My second reaction to the news was sympathy. And the longer I turn the details over in my head, the more this has turned to grief.” Pastior was a gay man in a country where homosexuality was a punishable offence. Gay men picked up by the Securitat rarely returned from prison, and those who did had been broken. Pastior, it seems, did what he had to so he would not be broken.

In the garden of the Literaturhaus, she reaffirms her feelings for him: “I must not distance myself from Oskar Pastior. I love him now as I loved him before. His is a tragic story.”

The speeches are over; the crowd is ushered into the lovely nineteenth-century building to see the exhibition of Muller’s life and work.

There is a short documentary on her birthplace, Nitzkydorf, a tiny village near Temesvar, Timisoara, Temeschwar (depending on which of three language groups you ask). Its inhabitants, German-speaking Saxons, have lived in this mountainous area of Transylvania for centuries. As with most of central Europe’s history, there have been heated debates over how many centuries, but there is no debate over the many times these lands changed hands. It’s one of those places where you could wake up as the citizen of one country and find yourself the citizen of another in the evening without ever leaving your home. The Mullers were minority Schwabians.

At the end of World War II, the Soviet army rounded up most of the German-speakers between the ages of 17 and 45 and transported them to labour camps in the East. Many of them starved to death. Some went mad. Some, like Herta Muller’s mother, returned home bearing the marks of years of slavery.

There is a strange photograph of Katharina Muller — tiny like her daughter — looking fearfully at the camera as if she was expecting to be hit. Muller says her mother used to tell her that “cold is not as bad as hunger.” She named Herta after her best friend in the camp, who had died. Her mother had taught Herta to peel potatoes so carefully that the skin fell away like a piece of silk.

Herta’s uncle had been an enthusiastic Nazi who volunteered for the war and never returned. There are photographs here of his fancy wedding.

After the war, the Romanian government made every effort to punish the German minority for being Germans and staying in their homes. Herta’s grandparents’ land was confiscated. Their livestock were taken. The village’s 1,500 inhabitants were “colonized.” Their one shared feeling was fear. “All of us walked around with Fear. No one trusted himself to speak about it…. My whole family was damaged.” Herta Muller’s father, a truck driver, dealt with hardship by heavy drinking.

In the video of her Nobel acceptance speech, Muller mentions the strange distance between her childhood in this valley and the magnificent City Hall in Stockholm. “I stand, as so often, next to myself.” In the photograph of Herta between her parents, she smiles tentatively, her chin raised between two beribboned plaits of thin hair. Her father looks as if he has never learnt to smile.

In later pictures she seems frightened, but her chin remains defiantly raised. “I came to high school in the city against the will of my mother,” says the text next to a 1971 group photo of Herta in Hermannstadt (Nagyszeben, Sibiu). “She knew that I would be ruined in the city. I began to read books … the village seemed like a box to me …. All the villagers were born old,” Muller’s voice says over documentary photographs of Nitzkydorf.

There is a wall displaying some of her poetry constructed of words cut out of magazines and newspapers. Her home, according to one interviewer, is full of cut-out words and stacks of magazines.

There are glass-enclosed displays of her manuscripts and dozens of photographs (she used to have short blond hair) and videos. There is a photo of her university friends, the “Aktionsgruppe Banat,” floating in a river, laughing. There are typescripts with corrections in her own hand and framed covers of her books.

The unintended focus of the exhibition is Oskar Pastior. He was 17 when he was deported to a Soviet gulag, as is Atemschaukel’s hero, Leopold Auberg. Neither knew why he was selected, nor where he was going.

It was 3 am in the night of 14-15 January 1945 when the patrol came
to fetch me. It was getting colder, –15°C. We drove in a
lorry with a tarpaulin hood through the empty town to the
exhibition hall. It was the Saxons’ festival hall. And now the
collective camp.

What awaited him at the camp was a world of filth, degradation, exhaustion, and endless, overwhelming hunger. Saved by the memory of his grandmother’s parting words that she knew he would return, he did, five years later, a man.

Before, during, and after my time in the camp — for twenty-five
years I lived in fear, of the state and of my family. Of a double
fall, that the state might lock me up as a criminal, and the family
disown me in disgrace. In the crowded streets, the display cases,
the windows in trams and houses, the fountains and puddles, for me,
became mirrors. I looked at myself, disbelievingly, feared I might
be transparent, after all.

What kept Pastior alive in the camp was also the magic of words — the same magic that protected Muller. Poetry and their shared German heritage brought them together and kept them close as friends. There is a film in the exhibition, recording their efforts to locate the camp and to talk about Pastior’s experiences. Her notes filled a mountain of exercise books. She finished the novel after his death in 2006.

Muller’s tenderness toward the much older man is the softest, gentlest moment in this otherwise tough, uncompromising record of her life. Like so many others in these lands, she, too, had to face the fact that many of her countrymen succumbed to the threats and inducements of the state police. Her hero, Oskar Pastior, had been no exception. On November 19, 2010, in a Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung article she added this: “There are two Oskar Pastiors. I am only now getting to know the second one. And that makes me bitter.”