By Nicolas Rothwell in The Australian‘s Literary Review, February 3rd 2010
Exile and totalitarianism haunt the redemptive fiction of Nobel laureate Herta Mueller
THE announcement of the newest Nobel laureate for literature, Romanian-born German author, Herta Mueller, was, as always, a ritual media event, with the individual merits of the winner artfully tied to a broader context. October 2009, precisely 20 years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall: an eastern European winner to bring back that hectic time. An emblematic choice; emblematic, though, of what? The eastern half of the now reunified continent? Romania itself, and the culture of the country in communist days? Or writing from Germany, and the way it has for so long been so painfully interwoven with the twists and turns of nationalist politics?
Mueller is an uneasy emblem of anything beyond herself and her own world of words, despite the valiant attempts of many authorities to classify her, before and after her abrupt entry into the pantheon of international literary renown. Her books, which have been cursorily inspected in the weeks since her elevation by various foreign critics concerned to judge the Nobel judges, offer scant grounds for assigning her a new, symbolic role. As for her public place in the various societies to which she has been attached, by birth, residence, formation and migration, it was, until now, quite marginal.
Her prize in this particular year may well have been prompted by the rhyme of history but it serves to raise intriguing questions: about the role of testament and ordeal in modern writing, about the nature of the life that yields up art, about the qualities of weight and substance in literature, qualities that the contemporary world of letters increasingly thrusts aside in favour of their pale, tempting shadows: sensation and memoiristic candour.
It is plain that the Swedish Academy’s panel of critics and experts are receptive to authors from the darker half of Europe. As is well known in the Anglophone writing world, the Nobel judges put Continental angst and introspection before broad commercial appeal, wild plot, high-jinks and verbal dexterities. Don Delillo, Philip Roth and other critical frontrunners from the American book bazaar seem unlikely to find favour with Sweden’s cadre of literary high priests. There is a strong lean, in the list of recent Nobels, towards writers who have found themselves caught up in the oppressive currents of recent European history: Poland’s Czeslaw Milosz and Wislawa Szymborska, Russian Joseph Brodsky, Hungarian Imre Kertesz.
Each year’s prize announcement from the academy is accompanied by a brief citation, which is somewhat more than a mere headline grab. In the case of Milosz, it praised his capacity to “voice man’s exposed condition in a world of severe conflicts”. Kertesz was singled out for “writing that upholds the fragile experience of the individual against the barbaric arbitrariness of history”. And so it was with Mueller, “who, with the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed”.
These tags have the effect of tying the writers to their time and circumstances but they also present an implicit account of what great literature is for in today’s world. That account gives priority to writing “from under the rubble”, writing set down under conditions of dictatorship, where freedom and the blandishments of consumer society are far away. Such a critical blueprint furnishes a means to turn a private writer public, to link the task of authorship and social witness, and also to give a kind of moral index for books and artistry. It consigns much contemporary writing to a secondary status.
There is a peculiar sting in this idea, as it applies to Western literary culture in these days of rapid transformation of the book and the printed word. For if high art comes in dark times, what of the times of ease and light? In the European domain, on this account, the golden days were those of constraint and dictatorship, when frontline writers were spurred to their finest works, and only the nostalgic memory of suffering and shadow can serve, in our sublunary age, as the feedstock for masterpieces of deeply realised, testimonial truth. It is in the bleak cone of subjection that the writing mind is most free from the realms of fashionable, conventional taste; most driven on to seek the heights, to soar.
As it happens, Mueller, at least on the surface, seems to bear out this theory. Her books serve as perfect embodiments of the idea that there is an “art of pressure” — and in her that species of art has been brought, through the Romanian experiences of the first part of her life, to a frightening peak. Her writing, though, has always had another constant theme: that of irredeemable exile. It is the intermarriage of these two elements — exile and the experience of political control — that marks it out. These are the defining features that have long shaped her writing project, and that make it one of resistance and “counter-exile”, a conscious, continuing refusal to give in to the condition of exile and its concomitant nostalgia, a refusal to bend before a forbidding status quo.
Here is Anders Olsson, member of the Swedish Academy, in his succinct presentation speech at the prize ceremony in December, as he sketches out this reading of Mueller’s life and work. It is, simply, “opposition as method”. The books stem from the ground circumstances Mueller faced: “Almost everything she writes is about life under Ceausescu’s Romanian dictatorship, its fear and betrayal and constant surveillance.” And that course of opposition has been unbroken, it endured after her flight into exile, and even after the dictatorship was overthrown in December 1989. Indeed, it has only deepened: in Germany, her ancestral homeland, she is not at home. Her experience leaves her no peace.
As Olsson put it, “For Herta Mueller, doubly rootless, return is an impossibility.” She looks back in her books to a vanished, unrepeatable time, when she was brought up and lived as a member of a minority culture, already in a state of exile within the surrounding society. As a result of this, her word-world is double: she has the Banat German dialect of her childhood in a backward region of western Romania, and Romanian itself, a sensual language she learned only in her teenage years. That double register has given her a tendency not just to compare the words and idea chains of the two languages but to “turn and twist words to extract new meanings”, a tendency that is much more obvious, it must be said, in her original texts than in the handful of excellent English translations of her works.
Olsson’s overview catches very well the odd quality of resistance one encounters in Mueller’s narratives: “You find . . . no epic line, no plot with beginning and end.” You just find life, or her memory of the way things were under extraordinary conditions. “If the world is ambiguous and opaque, literature must cease to provide a deceptive overview of it.” Prose and poetry are one for her: her writing is free from artificial subtleties, its difficulties are the difficulties and shocks the senses themselves find and feel. The prize, then, was given to her not because of the weight and merit of her great subject but because of her relentless approach to her overwhelming theme. It is not her courage in resisting political terror, but “the artistic value in that opposition”. Such are the through-lines of the work, as its admirers read it. What initial sketch can we give of the life that brought forth, so directly, this charge of art?
Mueller was born in 1953, the year of Stalin’s death, in the small German-speaking township of Nichidorf in the Banat, but the memories that would shape much in her writing were laid down some years earlier, at the end of World War II. Nichidorf is anatomised in grim detail in several of her books: “A peasant population. White, pink, pale blue gables — and triangular houses in symmetrical streets.” Her father had served in the Waffen SS during the war. After the Allies’ victory her mother was deported, like many German Romanians, to a Soviet work camp in the far Ukraine, and this further episode of exile eventually became a crucial theme in Mueller’s work.
If one judges from the baroque presentation of her home-town experiences in her short, oppressive debut, Niederungen (Nadirs), which was heavily censored by its first Romanian publishers, her childhood was full of pain and isolation, of omens and regulations. As Mueller told German writer Verena Auffermann, her father hated working in the fields:
He became a lorry driver and alcoholic. The combination is possible in the countryside. My mother was and remained a peasant in the corn and sunflower fields. Corn for me is the socialist plant par excellence: it displays its colours, grows in colonies, blocks the view and cuts your hands with its leaves while you’re working.
And here it is, Mueller’s unmistakeable, extraordinary voice, precise in its judgments, austere, merciless. It defends a self and world view: it resists. She left Nichidorf at 20 for school, then university: she went to Timisoara, the western border town that was the hearth, in late 1989, of the protests that sparked the fall of the communist regime. There she studied German and Romanian literature: she was associated with a German writers’ circle, the Aktionsgruppe Banat, which made a series of low-key appeals for freedom of speech. In the political context of the times, and the communist state, the purest Stalinist dictatorship in eastern Europe, then entering its most paranoid and repressive phase, this was an imprudent beginning to a literary career.
Mueller’s options inside Romania were limited by her membership of the German minority and her brief record of activism. She found work at a machine factory from 1977 to 1979, but was fired after she refused to become an informer for the Securitate, the regime’s all-controlling secret police. Harassment, intimidation, interrogations and death threats followed: this became the pattern of her life. The echo of those experiences is strewn through her fiction, which stands as the most significant testament to a world so bizarre future generations will simply refuse to believe it could have existed within the confines of mid 20th-century Europe: a regime where foreign publications were banned, where movement was strictly controlled and where thoughts could be crimes.
In 1984, the smuggled manuscript of Niederungen reached West Germany, where it was published to acclaim and some puzzlement. German readers had grave difficulty then, as now, in placing Mueller: she was a wild outrider, far from the mainstream of modern West German experience, far, even, from the life-paths of the “other Germans”: the 17 million citizens of the socialist German Democratic Republic, those dwellers in the strange alternative universe brought into being as a consequence of Nazism, war, defeat and occupation.
It was 1987 when Mueller, with her writer husband Richard Wagner, was at last able to emigrate from Romania to West Germany. There was a murky understanding in place in those days between the Bonn government and the Romanian regime: a ransom of hard currency changed hands in return for each German set free to return “home”. The deal suited the regime in Bucharest, which was destitute, and also yearned to rid itself of ethnic Germans, who were seen as politically unreliable. The consequence was the gradual emptying of the Banat region and the adjacent Siebenbuergen, distinctive corners of Europe where German settlers had lived for centuries. Mueller and her husband left behind the country where they had been raised and where their memories lay. They presumed they were leaving behind them forever the world of their youth, where friends betrayed each other and compromise with the authorities was the only thing that gave one the necessary breath and space to live, where every conversation was monitored, every intimacy was reported on, every word and look was filed.
They reached Berlin, at that stage still a divided city and a way stage between worlds. There, Mueller’s conventional literary life began: publications, even a degree of success and attention, almost inevitable, given the distinctive nature of her experiences and the strength of her voice in prose. After the fall of the eastern communist regimes, she emerged as a fierce critic of writers who had collaborated with the Stasi, the East German secret police. She gave readings in Berlin refugee shelters to protest against racist attacks on foreigners. And she began, in tandem with her new writing, to reclaim her past.
She made a handful of tentative visits to the new, democratic Romania, in truth a state where the old security police still held a good deal of sway. She campaigned to see the documents on her life that had been compiled by the Securitate. Eventually she found the files kept on the Aktionsgruppe Banat during her university years. The secret police had set up a special department for each suspect minority ethnic group. The Aktionsgruppe was spied on by specialists in “German nationalists and fascists”. In the opinion of the Securitate, it was “renowned for its hostile works”. It transpired that Mueller’s early writings had been the trigger for the initial opening of her security file, for those writings had displayed “tendentious distortions of realities in the country, particularly in the village environment”. Detailed textual criticism was provided to justify this verdict. The lines between dissent and co-operation were often hard to trace. The prominent emigre Romanian-German poet, Werner Soellner, has recently disclosed that he served for four years in the 1970s as just such a literary expert for the Securitate, providing dossiers on the work of his writer friends.
Mueller read her way through the file, each line, each word. The tale of her student years was there, but in the faintest, most adulterated form: the details had been filleted out, “emptied of all substance”. The three years she spent as a translator at the Tehnometal tractor factory were covered in the file by a single phrase, even though they were years of harassment and torment, of slander and pressure. It was the period when her father died.
“I no longer had a grip on things,” she remembers. “I had to reassure myself that I really existed in the world, and began to write down the story.” Those tales became Niederungen.
Her writing was thus born from her drive to make a counter-narrative, to protect herself against the state. Her attachment to the self’s subjective truth, her need for exact recollection, her need to identify loyalties and see betrayals, and set them down, these are all a strategy of file-making, of building counter-files. The Securitate knew their methods: authors themselves, of a vast secret literature, precise, and punctilious, they were almost Mueller’s co-writers in a struggle enterprise, seeking to control meaning and truth. They knew the rules of writing, and the way that narratives persuade.
They liked to use the tool of slander, which relies on the techniques of fiction for its success. “They knew,” Mueller wrote, “that perfidy would be far more destructive than any blackmail. You can even get used to death threats. They are part and parcel of this one life we have. You can defy anxiety to the depths of your soul. But slander steals your soul. You just feel surrounded by horror.”
Mueller’s Securitate file (code-name “Cristina”) actually contains little of what happened to her, though it runs to three volumes totalling 914 pages. No mention of the times she was pulled in from the street, interrogated and beaten. No mention of her terrifying secret journey to the snow resort of Poiana Brasov in the Carpathians, when she was felled to the ground repeatedly in front of a crowd on a station platform by Securitate agents; no mention of the furious pressure campaign waged over several weeks, when agents would come clandestinely into Mueller’s home and, cut by cut, mutilate a fox skin lying on the floor, until at last the head was severed from the body.
The files, though, do contain a slew of intercepted letters from admiring Western critics, writers and journalists, few of whom succeeded in their attempts to visit Mueller and her husband in Timisoara. They also contain the solutions to several mysteries in her personal life: they recount the course of her relationship with a close friend who eventually became a spy for the Securitate; they explain the conduct of a group of emigre Banat Germans who spread dark, fictive stories about her supposed links to the
All through her Romanian life, Mueller lived in a world peopled by deceptive figures: intimate allies who were really enemies, associates who were agents, chance acquaintances who had been enlisted as part of a surveillance team.
The persecution even outlasted the communist state, enduring into recent years. It gave Mueller an unusual tilt on her own persona, and on narrative, and where truth can best be found. For, thanks to the regime, she had a separate, fictive self.
She wrote a detailed account of these experiences in the German weekly, Die Zeit, in July 2009:
In my file, I am two different people. One is called “Cristina”, who is being fought as an enemy of the state. Wherever I went, I had to live with this doppelganger. It was not only sent after me wherever I went, it also hurried ahead. Even though I have always and from the start written only against the dictatorship, the doppelganger still continues on its own way. It has taken on a life of its own. Even though the dictatorship has been dead for 20 years, the doppelganger is still wandering about.
HOW to situate a writer subjected to such pressures? Literary traditions provide no obvious firm ground. Mueller was brought up in a book-free environment. In her parents’ house were prayer books, and the Deutsche Lebensschule — a kind of cultural instruction manual — and nothing else, and even those few books were not read but used for swatting flies. Her style in fact preserves in concentrated form the spoken German language of her childhood; it is clipped, it slashes through to the core of things.
But another element has flooded in, and in unusual ways: the soft, lyrical flow of Romanian speech. Romanian is the prototypical romance language, derived from the dog Latin of the old Dacian frontier province, filtered through a press of Slavic influences.
There is an echo of Romanian vocabulary in Mueller’s German but, much more than that, a Romanian sensibility, a distinctive way of seeing. She knows this well:
I learned Romanian very late, when I was 15, in town, and I wanted to learn it. I liked the language very much. Romanian is a very beautiful, sensual, poetic language. And from that moment onward . . . I realised just how rich Romanian is in imagery, what marvellous metaphors there are, the common metaphors that people use every day, in superstitions, or in expressions . . . many things are contradictory . . . they are called something completely different than in German. That is then a different look at the same thing. Language has different eyes. In my case Romanian always writes with me, also when I am not writing in Romanian, because I have it in my head.
This double flow is clear in her prose, which gains from these two distinct sources a depth and resonance that often seems at odds with the flat events and bleak sights being described. The form of Mueller’s books is, on the face of it, unremarkable: first-person narratives, simple, straight-through structures, psychological tales. She is writing very much from the fortress of her self, and her experiences but she is also strikingly positioned, as a latecomer into the realm of post-war German writing, and as a border figure in European letters: born Germanic in a Latinate state subjected to a Slavic empire.
There are significant traces of this genealogy in her work. She may be accepted, now, as a German novelist, but she is far from the great traditions of romantic and nationalist writing, tied to the essence of German identity, to the landscape of the Heimat, the lush home country. If there are similarities with German-language authors, they are with figures from the world, largely vanished, of the Austro-Hungarian east: Gregor von Rezzori, Joseph Roth and other writers from the old, scattered margins of the Hapsburg realms, where various peoples once lived alongside each other, and mingled, and cosmopolitan societies and narratives sprang up. Mueller’s take on her evaporated subject-world shares something of the tone of sundering and distance one finds in such writers when they summon up in their prose abandoned customs or destroyed towns and neighbourhoods.
But the strongest literary echo comes from elsewhere. The quality of clash of swords one finds in her tales, the grind of will upon will, the sense of a lone figure moving through a resistant, conspiratorial world: these all have strong rhymes with the writing pattern established in Dostoyevsky, which persists into the Russian 20th century, in Isaac Babel, in Vasily Grossman, in Alexandr Solzhenitsyn and Varlam Shalamov. It is the natural stance of the writer as oppositionist, face to face with a system of menace and control — up against hostile letters.
The duels that Mueller’s characters face with their inquisitors are reminiscent of the set-piece duels in Dostoyevsky, if without the reek of original sin and complicity one finds curling round the Russian novelist’s most disturbing scenes. It is a correspondence, more than a link: but every writer recalling a secret police interrogation room is, in some sense, Dostoyevsky’s diagonal child.
And there is another, closer tradition lurking in the atmosphere of Mueller’s work, more a scent in the air than a direct tie. The Romanian cultural and literary world of the mid-20th century was probably the most complex and hyper-intellectual in eastern Europe. Mueller’s work absorbs some of its elements and reacts against others. That writing world was hybrid in the extreme, during its years of formation, when French cultural influence in Bucharest was strong and the presence of Romania’s many peoples helped created a polylingual space: Jews, Turks, Magyars, Gypsies, Slavs and Germans were all present in the tapestry, and even the national borders of the region were in constant flux.
Against such a backdrop, it was almost inevitable that a countervailing nationalist cultural movement would develop and acquire its own poets and philosophers. In the dark course of recent times, this nationalist current fell subject to the pressures of fascism, xenophobia, anti-semitism and communism. Prominent writers were enlisted or suborned into these camps; others fled or suffered grievously for their resistance. When viewed from today’s vantage point, the tale of Romania over recent decades can seem like a long nightmare of ideological perversions, culminating in the bitter midnight of Ceausescu’s later years, which were the years of Mueller’s early adulthood.
But that entire period was also one of efflorescence, when suffering yielded rich dividends, and profound writers and thinkers came to the fore, and it is the world’s loss that only the great exiles from the country, such as Emil Cioran and Eugene Ionesco, are widely known.
During this time, for writers and artists in every city of Romania, whether in the heartland or in the margins, whether in Bucharest or Timisoara, the fundamental issue was always the same: it was the question of the regime, and one’s commitment. Did one accept the program, or oppose it? Whether the period was that of the fascistic Iron Guard or the proletarian communist state, whether the great national program was based on class, religion or some mystic sense of identity, the question remained: for or against? It determined career, success, even life and death.
This literary culture was the context for Mueller, who was persecuted and thrust out by the state, and is today, by a magnificent paradox, the most famous Romanian author. Naturally, Romanians are the people who know best who she is, and why, and who recall the experiences she describes. They know them from the inside: they share the shivers of fear she sets down; they, too, are connoisseurs of resistance and of the arts of compromise. Mueller is not, then, just an ambiguous German plunged in her double exile: she has a shared homeland in her memory of dictatorship. It may even be that she is most highly appreciated and clearly understood in the small circle of Romanian artists and writers. Here is one of the country’s leading novelists, Mircea Cartarescu, chronicler of Bucharest, celebrating Mueller’s Nobel.
Herta speaks Romanian like myself, she is saturated with the Romanian language, culture and literature, she has always been obsessed with Romanian poetic expressions in the common language that she uses and develops in so many of her novels. Everything she has written is set in Romania, a country that she loves and hates, a country which, even if it has damaged her (it has certainly left deep scars on her brain) is a part of her living memory, is part of her at least as much as Germany is. The baroque but still criminal dictatorship in Romania has made her what she is now, having lodged deep in her mind the traumatic grain of sand that produced the pearl.
Cartarescu describes his fellow-author’s intense obsessions and paranoid terrors, her sense of having always to fight a vast and incomprehensible enemy, and the most intriguing aspect of his words is not their precision but their sympathy. By virtue of his own life path, he is close enough to her to speak this way. Every writer who was present in that realm feels the urge to remember, to testify, and by testifying, even about things long past, even against shadows, to fight, to resist.
Mueller’s version of this jigsaw is intriguing. She is not a writer given to reflection on what makes her write: she burns, she writes, the fire soon sparks up again. She can trace the history, the influences, the way they hang together, how she fits in. All her books are studies of the effects of force on an individual, and the counter, the response. The books are also reactions, sent through time. But her character, her way of seeing, is not determined simply by things that happened to her: she has a tilt of her own, a sensibility.
As Cartarescu writes, asking himself the one question east European writers of the past half-century cannot stop asking, it is hard to say precisely what Mueller would have been without the dictatorship. It made her, it sculpted her, but surely she was already a creature with a particular view and need to write.
In the Nobel lecture she delivered in Stockholm on December 7, Mueller made a bid to draw together the key themes of her early years. She retold, in the guise of memoir, scenes already familiar in several slant versions to readers of her work. There was the ritual she enacted with her mother who, on her leaving for school each morning, would ask her in a matter-of-fact way if she had “a handkerchief” with her. The scene breaks. Mueller moves forward to the factory years. She goes through her routine tasks at the tractor factory on Glory Street. Then the pressure begins. A Securitate officer, tall, thick-boned, a colossus, comes into her world. He gives her dictation. Her name, date of birth, address.
After that, she has to write down that she will become an informer, to “collaborate”. She puts the pen down, and goes to the window, and looks out “onto the dusty street, unpaved and full of potholes, and at all the hump-backed houses”. She refuses: it’s not in her character, she says.
The Securitate man snatches up the vase full of tulips on her desk and hurls it against the wall: “As it shattered it made a grinding sound, as though the air had teeth.” The cat on the tree branch outside has jumped away, and the branch is bouncing like a trampoline.
The campaign against her begins. She waits to be fired. She loses her desk seat in the office. At times, she sits in the stairwell. She pulls out the handkerchief she now routinely takes from her drawer each morning, and holds it, and smooths it. That object, with its freight of consoling meaning, goes with her, it speaks to her, it speaks of worlds of feeling; it resists.
Mueller continued, in the Nobel lecture, with her handkerchief stories: that of the handkerchief and the Romanian-German poet Oskar
Pastior, a crucial figure in her writing life, a man whose tales of post-war deportation to the Soviet Union’s penal camps she has traced in punctilious detail in books of her own. He once received a brand-new handkerchief from the hands of a peasant woman who rescued him when he was lost, starved, and bleeding. He kept that gift all through his camps, and brought it home. Mueller brings out her conclusions:
Can we say that it is precisely the smallest objects which connect the most disparate things in life? That the objects are in orbit and that their deviations reveal a pattern of repetition We can believe this, but not say it. Still, what can’t be said can be written. Because writing is a silent act, a labour from the head to the hand.
Under the dictatorship, too, things could only be set down, in silence. The words she turned to were not just descriptive observations, transcriptions of what she had seen and experienced. No, she was caught up in a whirlwind of sentences, in the words of a pantomime, parallel to reality, but developing its own scale, shrinking some features, enlarging others, a harsh dance of words, “ruthless and restive, always craving more but instantly jaded”, building its own rhythms and its internal logic. Such was the drive in her writing. Her role went far beyond the mere provision of testimony: she became the author who reshaped and re-envisaged that world.
And it was her words that were her liberators: “They coax the subject anywhere they want. Nothing makes sense any more and everything is true.” This storm leads her on, even now. This is why she turns to wild metaphor, to poems scraped together in collages of found, cut-out words, to fragments of jagged memory, to tales where experience and dream march side by side. It is an activist approach to narrating: its chief characteristic is that the author is no longer the victim, the language itself is in control. In writing, she says, it is not a matter of trusting, but rather of the honesty of the deceit. She closes — it is the most intimate of Nobel lectures —
It seems to me that the objects don’t know their material, the gestures don’t know their feelings, and the words don’t know the mouth that speaks them. But to be certain of our own existence, we need the objects, the gestures, and the words. After all, the more words we are allowed to take, the freer we become. If our mouth is banned, then we attempt to assert ourselves through gestures, even objects. They are more difficult to interpret, and take time before they arouse suspicion. They can help us turn humiliation into a type of dignity that takes time to arouse suspicion.
Hence the grace of the objects, natural and artificial, that punctuate the flow of Mueller’s books. Hence the weight of the handkerchief
passed, like life, like trust, from hand to hand, and from her memory to words set down in print.
MUELLER’S version of her method in writing here is knowing, subtle and, inevitably, partial. She sees her psychological and literary mechanisms but what she is less able to grasp is their effect on a stranger’s eyes. How do the books seem, encountered today, by outsiders, who know little of the obscure details of existence in Romania during the last of the dictator’s days?
Several of her recent works have been translated into the main European languages. As is the case with many authors from the eastern reaches of the Continent, she has built up a readership in France, Italy and Spain. The most accessible and conventionally structured of Mueller’s works is The Land of Green Plums (1996), which follows a group of young men and women seeking to escape from the hold of the regime. The narrative cuts between their stories, in a fashion reminiscent of the famous novels Milan Kundera wrote in mid-career, when his chief subject was the effects of Czechoslovakia’s communist system on his characters. Mueller’s young men and women turn on each other; it is a story of betrayal, almost too dark for modern tastes.
Niederungen consists of linked short chapters from a harsh rural childhood. It, too, is staccato and unrelenting. Perhaps the most resolved and immediate of her books is The Appointment (2001), a sharp, succinct account of the female narrator’s interrogation by a Securitate officer. The tale is told in a single sweep, as she travels to the secret police headquarters: her mind reaches back, she weighs the texture of her life, summons up key episodes. It is a spare, hurried story with the tension of a detective novel, the clash of a psychodrama. The strangeness of the everyday is conveyed continually, and that effect is strengthened by the narrator’s angled way of seeing life. She leaves the familiar, hostile factory:
Nothing was too far-fetched for that place, it could make evening come before the afternoon; it could pull the sun over and make it hang suspended in the sky behind the factory, glowing like a ball of fire, and then have it set inside the buildings, dark as a breadpan, before the day was done. I thought of the evening hours after Papa’s funeral . . .
The extended image flight, and the abrupt jump in thought, are typical. Mueller’s voice, which is to the fore in all her works, unvarying in its attack, comes through, blazing with its will to convey what life was for her: she hastens, everything is urgent, the events and episodes rush by. Here she is, in the core passage of The Appointment. Her central character is about to discover a piece of horror prepared for her by the Securitate man. She remembers leaving an interrogation session:
Inside my head was buzzing with thoughts, on top my scalp felt loose, and over my scalp my hair was being blown by the wind. Wind is made for flying, traffic lights for flashing, cars for driving, trees for standing. Does any of this really mean anything, or is it just there for you to wonder about. My tongue was licking at my brain, it tasted sickly sweet, I saw a food stand and imagined either that I was hungry or that I ought to be.
Tension, pressure, bitterness: it is the life-duel of Romania, the friends who inform, the neighbours who spy, the husbands who torment. It is life’s texture: loathed, loved, resisted, remembered. The version of the world created in these pages has a dreadful beauty born of mental struggle, born from the act of writing.
This voice so unlike anything else in modern German letters has been received as an ambiguous blessing. Mueller’s place in the reunified German nation-state could be gauged by the responses to her Nobel, which took on greater definition over time.
On the day, Chancellor Angela Merkel, herself an eastern German, and thus familiar in instinctual fashion with Mueller’s themes, tied the award to the political calendar: “Particularly now, 20 years after the fall of the wall, this is a wonderful sign. We are happy that she has found her home in Germany.” But Mueller is not a standard emigre, from St Petersburg or Cairo, she is a returning German, yet she is still in an exile, rather than in her true and long-lost home. Gottfried Honnefelder, from the Book Publishers’ Association, described her as “one of the most important voices we have: powerful and nuanced”.
But the defining thing about Mueller is her distance from the general stream of thought and writing in contemporary Hamburg or Frankfurt; she is not quite one of the familiar, accepted chorus. She is certainly recognised, and receives the honours one might expect a sophisticated society, still possessing much of its original high culture, to bestow on such a writer: the Kleist Prize, the Kafka Prize, the European Aristeion; she has even been a member, since 1995, of the Deutsche Akademie fuer Sprache und Dichtung, an elite body that takes the whole German-speaking domain as its concern.
Yet there was an astonishment in the air after she won the Nobel. It came out in backhand ways, in the coverage of the Stockholm ceremony by the high-end media, where Mueller’s composure and capacity to go through the formal proceedings seemed worthy of note, and almost every article brought in the names of other prominent western German writers, as though they were somehow part of the event. This pattern was very evident to readers and critics from the former East Germany, who have become expert in scanning the culture pages for signs of such subterranean complexities. For Mueller, simply by being as she is and writing as she does, holds up unwelcome reflections in the German mirror.
On the one hand, she has the standard tormented family background: a father from the ranks of the Waffen SS, a mother deported to a post-war camp. The doom of the past of National Socialism breathes in her. You can argue this. But she is also very plainly from beyond the frontier of familiar German experience; she is from an alternative version of German existence, one with its own ingrained words and ways. It is the peasant culture of the Banat infused with the influences of all the surrounding speech communities and plunged in the dramatic space of Transylvania, on the very margins of Europe. Mueller’s home, evoked in her prose, is a segment of Germanic folk memory preserved in written amber: in its antiquated simplicity it is pure, and ideal; by its lineage alone it is quite removed from the recent shadows in the national tradition.
More than this, Mueller is not a representative or inheritor of a political current that has inflicted force and terror on much of Europe. She is a victim of just such a force: Soviet communism in its Romanian avatar. Though this is very far from her self-conception, for readers in today’s Germany she is that rare and troubling thing, a “good German”, a rebel against darkness, a dissident, persecuted, harassed, hounded, yet unbroken.
This peculiar stamp of identity and context separates Mueller even from the writers of communist East Germany, whose status today depends in great part on their political record under totalitarianism. Many of the best-known East German authors from regime days are now fallen figures. Those easterners whose star has risen are members of the younger generation: figures such as Ingo Schulze, from Dresden, whose chief subject has been German reunification after the fall of the wall, and its troubling effects. Given the nature of the East German regime, the paths open to German writers from that “other realm” when the dictators of the ruling party held sway were three-fold: emigration to the West, silence, or a degree of well-judged compromise. It was a national regime, as well as an ideological one, and it was constantly on the look out, seeking cultural collaborators to burnish its image.
For Mueller, by contrast, living as a German under a Romanian national regime, marked out as she was by her language and her sheer identity, the path of compromise was not so plainly available. She was singled out for trouble because she was German, a startling thing for modern Germans to hold in their thoughts as they look back on recent European history.
Other writers prominent on the national stage have occupied rather different niches. The two most recent German Nobel prize winners tell the tale. Heinrich Boell (1972), who served in World War II, became the chief describer of its dreadful consequences in the German west. He cast a sceptical, hard eye on the modern state; guilt and retrospect were his constant half-spoken themes. In his smooth prose he reflected fragments. Gunter Grass, who won the Nobel a decade ago, is an even sharper example. He was born in Danzig, and took the years of war as his subject. He was for decades a radical moral voice in post-war Germany, he dominated the literary landscape, he was the chief critic of the pace and manner of German reunification after the wall came down in 1989. Grass has recently published his diary and reflections from that period, but his place in the national imagination shifted in drastic fashion three years ago when he at last disclosed the fact that he had been enlisted as a teenager in the Waffen SS. Such is German republic of letters, a place utterly haunted by the past of Nazism and the more recent past of communism.
It is this world that Mueller, with her very different memories and perspective, has entered, and now bestrides. She is a saviour from elsewhere. Her works testify to the wide dissemination of German dialects and traditions across the face of eastern Europe. Those words, like sparks cast from a fire, caught far beyond their first hearths; they are now being gathered in by the surviving, reconstituted German nation-state.
One of Mueller’s antecedents on the frontier of the language is especially striking: her most recent book, Atemschaukel (Breathswing) designates him plainly. This is the poet Paul Celan, who was born in the Romanin-controlled Bukovina, once the easternmost province of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. Celan, Jewish, a survivor of torments, an exile, troubled by conspiracies imagined and real, lived out his life in Vienna and Paris, but emerged as the monarch of German verse. One of his key collections was titled Atemwende (Breathturn).
Mueller’s Atemschaukel digs into the lives and memories of the Germans deported after 1945. She goes into Celan’s country and takes much of her narrative from Pastior’s recollections. As Olsson said in his presentation speech in Stockholm, the disparate themes come together here at last: “With infinite empathy and unsentimental eye, she prolongs her counter-exile in her great novel Atemschaukel.
In stronger dependency than earlier on documentary material, she succeeds in uniting the lucidity of prose with the shock impact of poetic imagery. In intensive, intermittent episodes from camp life, she gives a segment of unavoidable contemporary history renewed visibility.”
Olsson did not need to add that Mueller, in this book, answering Celan, becomes the writer of the last, forgotten stage of the whirlwind unleashed by German dreams upon the Continent, the retributive stage, when Germans themselves, in the depth of exile, enter into the fate that defines the entire European century.
Such themes as these, with their grandeur, terror and attendant edge of absurdity, do not figure much in contemporary Western writing. Today’s web journals and up-to-the-minute literary magazines are more likely to be filled with accounts of memoirs and zeitgeist studies, mixed in with enthusiastic personality profiles and detailed grant funding lists. The business of high-end fiction has settled into a comfortable routine, with name authors providing new books on a regular two or three-year rotation. Historical novels, multicultural novels, social dramas, ecological and apocalyptic tales — these are the genres that hold sway.
If one glances back over the past half-century, the trend is evident: there has been a vast broadening of interest in the books and stories of non-European societies. The pattern is surely tied not just to the quality of the work from these exotic places but to their strangeness, and to the appeal of narratives that illuminate such unfamiliar worlds. The central pages in the chronicle of recent literary writing were composed by figures such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Salman Rushdie and Vikram Seth. The gold standard of First World fiction has been pegged to books by synoptic writers such as Thomas Pynchon, Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace, or proficient craftsmen in the vein of Ian McEwan and Graham Greene.
It is striking that the writers of central and eastern Europe have not struck a strong chord in the wider world. There has been celebrity, usually of a perishable and political kind, for exiles such as Solzhenitsyn and the poet of St Petersburg, Brodsky, but the flow of great testimonial literature from the “unfree” half of Europe remains half-known and little appreciated. This work spans countries and decades: among the more recent examples are Ivan Klima’s Judge on Trial, Kertesz’s Fateless, Milosz’s Native Realm, Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales and Grossman’s Life and Fate.
Mueller belongs in this company: these are all books that deal with life in camps or under totalitarian dictatorship. They stand at the core of Europe’s response to the dark forces that tore at Western civilisation in the century just passed. They are fully realised works, of utmost beauty, though that beauty has been called forth as a response to terror. They deal in pity and fear, and offer scant release or hope of easy transcendence.
Readers who venture into this archipelago come away knowing that authors such as Shalamov or his central European brethren operate on a different plane from Western writers of the modern era. One finds no wit or world-weary irony; there is no formal innovation: what would be the point of having an unreliable narrator when your story concerns the darkest events in recorded history? The aim of such writing is quite different. It is redemptive; it holds out the hope that art can describe extreme human experiences and the feelings of those subjected to such conditions; it begins from the belief that books can provide some response to the fate of our fellow beings, some reflection of the world’s higher, hidden order, some sense that we live not just as animals but in a realm of depth and grace.
SEVERAL obvious factors underlie the lack of appetite among readers for this strain in world literature. These books are concerned with a time now gone, even if its after-effects linger: the years from 1917 to 1989 bracket the totalitarian age in Russia and eastern Europe; we are a whole generation clear.
And many of the countries and the writing traditions that were caught up in this maelstrom are small and little known: who cares about the great writers of Romania and Hungary, whose brilliance is hidden behind the veils of obscure languages? The subject matter is austere, the narrative tone often either harsh or elevated.
One can argue that human suffering and political oppression are constants of our world, and so the testimonial literature of Europe’s dark days remains vivid and rich in meaning, and Mueller herself tends to run this argument, almost from instinct.
“Literature goes to where the weight is,” she said, in her first impromptu comments minutes after learning of her Nobel prize. “And I lived under this dictatorship for over 30 years and that is where the injuries and the theme are. I did not choose this theme, the theme always seeks me out. And one has to write about the things that occupy one incessantly. And it’s important, dictatorship, for unfortunately that dictatorship was not the very last. Regrettably there are still so many in the world.”
Literature goes to where the weight is: a succinct formula, catching what many in central Europe and the nations that once made up the Soviet Union feel today, now the storm has gone. There is also a sense that the weight of things has gone, and the conditions for making great art have vanished too. And it may be here, in the context of our day, and our perspective on recent European history, that the secret reasons are to be found for the circumstances Mueller finds herself in, admired, garlanded with prizes, yet very much a minority taste. It is not just the mild discomfort that progressive-minded readers may feel on opening one of her accounts of life under Romanian communism, as they reflect that the Left’s familiar, soft-focus view on such regimes was mistaken and immoral to the core. No, there is a deeper unease set in train by such books as The Appointment or The Land of Green Plums, or even Grossman’s Forever Flowing or Life and Fate. Such books, with their knowledge of “where the weight is”, and where beauty rests, bring the Western reader face to face with the flippant, arbitrary nature of much that passes for literature, and with the desolation at the well-springs of our civilisation, which has no strong idea of what is precious in it and what it should defend.
More than this, Mueller’s tales cast the mind back to the record of the 20th century, and bring that legacy alive, and make clear to us what we would rather not accept: that European civilisation came to a climax of inhumanity and terror, and if that civilisation persists today, it persists under a shadow and our proper task is to remember, not forget.
In 1987, just as Mueller and her husband were leaving Romania, I began making a series of visits to that country, although naturally the face of the workers’ and peasants’ paradise that I was allowed to see as a foreign correspondent was far removed from the one she records. Even so, the tone and mood of life there could not be entirely hidden, and the experience of travelling through Ceausescu’s decaying empire remains imprinted in me. Like other Western journalists at that time, I felt a vague commitment to express a solidarity with the writer dissidents of the eastern bloc, and I would seek to visit them in their dingy apartments whenever possible. An unofficial network of aid and support, run by American, British and French contacts, pointed travelling reporters towards the key oppositionists in each country, and this meant that figures such as Vaclav Havel in Prague, Gaspar Miklos Tamas in Budapest and Adam Michnik in Warsaw were familiar to Western readers well before they became the intellectual leaders of the revolutions of 1989.
In Romania, though, it was different. The dissidents and activists were hard to track down; many were under house arrest or in jail. By chance, several of the writers whose names were best-known in the West were women: Doina Cornea from the cathedral town of Brasov, Ana Blandiana, and Mueller. During my first extended stay in Bucharest, I was guided by a Romanian journalist, who was, doubtless, required to report on my activities for the Securitate. He was a figure of great cultural depth. We spent long hours lost in mazy conversations. From time to time, I would suggest that we made a visit to Brasov. Silence would result. The mere mention of Cornea or Blandiana would produce a look of terror in his eyes.
For days on end we made explorations together, journeys into poverty. The roads were empty, the fields were bare. In food outlets, meat was hardly ever on the table. There was no point offering packs of Marlboro as bribes: Romania had been cut off from contact with the Western world before the Marlboro brand was invented. The only thing that would do was Kent cigarettes, and using this unofficial currency, on a later trip, with a more wayward minder, I managed to visit to the troubled town of Timisoara, far to the west of the capital. It was mid-winter, there was snow and frost on the ground. The drive had been a hard pull, with breaks at bleak fuel-stops crowded with Bulgarian long-haul truck drivers, each one of them dead drunk, and supported by pairs of sad-faced travelling prostitutes.
We reached town, and came up to the university district where we found a cafe open but with no electric power. There was a cooking fire in the back courtyard, tallow candles sputtering on the tables, a handful of students gathered around. Black cats with mange prowled the stone floor. After a while, a tall, keen-eyed man in an Astrakhan cap came in, spotted us and sat at our table.
“I know who you are,” he said triumphantly. “Of course.”
“A Westerner,” said my companion. “A foreign journalist.”
“We know everything,” said the tall man, reflectively, smiling, full of sociability.
“Before it happens. When there will be riots, who will be speaking out of turn.”
“And so,” I asked him, with that faint sense of testing the limits that was so much a part of reporting in the eastern bloc states in those days: “You presumably know HertaMueller, and what she’s writing?”
“That whore and fascist,” said the man, aimiably, closing his fist, as if to prove the point beyond all shadow of doubt.
“An enemy of the people! And she’s not just a writer, she’s a spy as well, of course, just like you.”